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Good Children’s Book

What Makes a Good Children’s Book?

As a professional children’s book printing supplier and a parent of two young kids, I’ve spent a lot of time reading to my children. And in the process, I’ve thought a lot about what makes a children’s book truly great.

In this post, I want to share my thoughts on the key ingredients of a good children’s book in 2024. As always, I aim to take a data-driven approach by looking at actual search and reading trends. My goal is to create an authoritative and useful guide for parents, teachers, librarians and anyone else who cares about nurturing a love of reading in children.

Good Children’s Book

Why Children’s Books Matter

Before we dive into the specifics, I think it’s important to step back and talk about why children’s books matter in the first place. The search volume for terms related to children’s books and early literacy has grown 39% since 2019 according to Google Trends data. Parents and educators clearly care about giving kids a strong foundation.

Beyond searches, sales of children’s books have also exploded in recent years. In 2022 alone, children’s book revenue grew by over 9%.

But this isn’t just about profits to publishers. Study after study has shown the incredible benefits that reading with children provides, including:

  • Enhanced vocabulary and literacy skills
  • Improved focus and concentration
  • Better academic performance in all subjects
  • Increased imagination and empathy

Quite simply, reading great books with children changes lives in profound ways.

Now let’s explore what makes some children’s books stand out more than others.

What Makes a Good Children’s Book? 7 Key Ingredients

Over the past few years, I’ve read hundreds of children’s books with my kids. And I’ve noticed that the very best ones have a few key things in common:

1. Kid-relatable characters

For young children especially, being able to identify with storybook characters is crucial for engagement. Kids want to see protagonists around their same age that are grappling with issues relevant to their daily lives.

As kids get older, they can handle more complex characters of course. But relatability never goes out of style.

Some examples of children’s books with highly relatable lead characters:

  • Frederick by Leo Lionni – a young mouse gathers rays of sun and colors while his colleagues gather more traditional supplies for winter.
  • Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes – a little mouse with a big name who gets teased at school.
  • The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey – two prankster 4th graders accidently hypnotize their mean principal.

2. Rhythmic, lyrical writing

Especially for younger kids, nothing captivates attention like rhythmic, lyrical language and word patterns. From short, punchy phrases to full rhyming schemes, an almost song-like cadence connects deeply.

This is why Dr. Seuss remains the undisputed champion of children’s storytelling decades later. The melodious language sweeps you up regardless of age:

  • “I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them Sam I Am!”
  • “From there to here / from here to there / funny things are everywhere!”

Beyond rhymes though, children respond strongly to repetition and the interplay of long and short sentence structure. So we can’t dismiss prose works like Marc Brown’s Arthur series that pull kids in with almost musical writing too.

3. Rich sensory details

As Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “The measure of the worth of a book is the degree to which it can be enjoyed by an active mind.” And young minds are extremely active!

To truly engage kids, language needs to activate the senses and get those imaginations firing. Specific tastes, smells, textures, sights and sounds make a world come alive and pull the reader into an experience.

Very few writers can match Roald Dahl’s sensory mastery in books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory an Matilda. For example:

  • “The walls were damp. Nasty fungus was growing from them. It smelled sour and musty as though something had died inside there long ago and had rotted.”
  • “Matilda burped. A gigantic, scintillating burp it was.”

Detail-rich narrative makes good books into great books by painting an unforgettable world in kids’ minds.

4. Surprising plot twists

Children have wild imaginations that don’t necessarily follow rigid logic. This is why many beloved kids’ books feature surprising – sometimes wacky – plot twists.

Unexpected story outcomes subvert expectations and always prompt giggles or gasps. And again, we have Roald Dahl to thank here for books overflowing with the fantastically absurd.

For example, who could predict James and the Giant Peach rolling straight over the old aunts? Or Bruce Bogtrotter finishing that massive chocolate cake in Matilda? Only marvelously inventive authors like Dahl.

Some other delightfully twisty tales for kids:

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

5. Positive messages and role models

Many parents understandably want children’s stories with affirming morals instead of outdated stereotypes or gender roles. And this demand has only grown in recent years – 72% of Gen Z parents surveyed said diversity and inclusion in kids’ media was important to them.

Fortunately, there are now abundant options like Lubaya’s Quiet Roar by Marilyn Nelson and Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love that provide fantastic role models for kids.

And children absorb these positive behaviors modeled in books and bring them into the real world. As written in the journal Children and Libraries:

“Children learn empathy and understanding from books with characters from different backgrounds than themselves. Books provide children with a road map of how to respond with compassion and wisdom to difference, including disabilities.”

6. Carefully structured pacing

One difference between children’s and adult books is the meticulous pacing that engages young minds. The best kids’ books follow a carefully plotted trajectory like:

  • Grabbing attention fast with action or humor
  • Progressing into rising tension centered on a problem
  • Inserting mini mysteries, puzzles or surprises to break things up
  • Building towards an emotionally resonant climax and resolution

Many early readers like Mo Willems’ Pigeon series masterfully blend suspense and comic relief without ever losing sight of their main story question.

Book series remain wildly popular with kids in part because they mimic this compelling story structure in digestible chunks. Moments of tension lead to temporary solutions while moving to an overarching resolution.

7. Room for imagination and wonder

As we’ll discuss more in the next section, the visual side of children’s literature has blossomed with creative illustrative styles. But even for text-dominant works, words still stimulate those imaginative faculties.

Descriptive yet open-ended language gives young minds room to fill in details and subplots themselves. As C.S. Lewis explained:

“I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say.”

By suggesting magical possibilities instead of narrowly defining everything, literary masters like Lewis and Tolkien invented worlds where any child can envision herself as the hero.

This sense of wonder flows from scarcity too. Children savor exhilarating concepts like talking animals or secret worlds precisely because they stand apart from everyday life.

The timelessness of imaginative children’s literature lives not in any single plot or character…but in a feeling that anything is possible if you open your mind and dream.

The Rise of Visually Striking Illustrations

In addition to considering children’s book writing itself, the visual side has exploded with artistry and style too.

Striking cover illustrations now play a huge role in which books young kids gravitate to in libraries and bookstores. Interior images likewise capture attention spans with eye-popping scenes that amplify key story moments.

Vibrant, multilayered illustrations like Oliver Jeffers’ mixed media art in Here We Are or Christian Robinson’s flowing watercolors in You Matter bring stories to life in unforgettable ways. They add deeper meaning beyond text alone.

And graphic novels like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile series take visual storytelling even further by interweaving sequential art throughout.

Many children’s books now seamlessly integrate lavish illustrations into lyrical language. For example, check out the breathtaking nature panoramas mixed with poetry in Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature.

This special alchemy of pictures and words creates an immersive experience for children to get completely lost in literature.

Key Takeaways: What Makes the Best Children’s Books

In this increasingly noisy, mobile world, discovering books that deeply resonate with children has never been more important. The titles they grow to cherish shape how kids see themselves and the world around them.

While people hold many subjective opinions on children’s literature, my analysis found seven ingredients consistently present in the most beloved and nourishing books:

  • Kid-relatable characters that let young readers see themselves
  • Lyrical writing with rhythmic, musical language
  • Rich sensory details that immerse children in dynamic settings
  • Surprising plot twists to delight curious young minds
  • Positive messages via upbeat stories and role models
  • Carefully structured pacing to keep engagement high
  • Room for imagination that gives kids ownership in the adventure

On top of these core narrative elements, creatively illustrated editions now dominate as well by fusing striking visual art styles with resonant stories.

There’s certainly no formula that guarantees children’s book greatness. But understanding these shared traits that literarily-treasured titles exhibit across ages can help parents, teachers and librarians to identify truly exceptional reads.

More importantly, we further our mission to nurture children’s development and love of reading itself – a priceless gift that lasts a lifetime.

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