Dr. Seuss and the Art of Choosing Children’s Books

My son, now 2 years 7 months old, has recently discovered a new reading passion:  Dr. Seuss.  A while back, we inherited a number of Dr. Seuss books from a friend.  The collection is particularly good.  It includes old standbys, like The Cat in the Hat and One Fish Two Fish, yet also has some more relatively obscure Dr. Seuss titles like Bartholomew and the Ooblek, Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose, and I Had Trouble Getting Into Solla Sollew.  When we first received the books, my son was completely uninterested.  If we attempted to read one to him, he would slam the book shut after a few pages and instead suggest we read him a book about Elmo.  So, this wonderful collection sat in a pile for several months, sadly unread.

Then one day about a month ago, on a whim, I picked up Ten Apples Up On Top.  The kid and I sat down to read it, and lo and behold, he loved it.  Ten Apples became part of the regular reading rotation.  From there, he moved onto The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.  He also really enjoys Happy Birthday to You! (which prompted him to learn the date of his own birthday), ABC, and The Sneetches.

Why exactly does my son now adore Dr. Seuss, at age 2 and 1/2 years, when he couldn’t be bothered with him at age 2?  I can’t provide any sort of scientific answer to this one, but I have developed an “art” of sorts when it comes to choosing books for my son.  I call it the “words-to-pictures ratio.”  It’s pretty simple:  with your baby, you start with books with big colorful pictures and very few words.  As they grow older, add books with more words. For instance, from a very young age my son loved the book I Love You Through and Through by Bernadette Rosetti Shustak, which has big simple drawings of a little baby and about five words per page — perfect for the under 1 set.  Eventually, we moved onto books with more words, but still not too many.  Any Sandra Boynton book is a perfect example of the type of book that appealed to my son between the ages of 1-2.

Now, at 2 plus, the words-to-pictures ratio has increased.  My son can handle books with more plot and less illustration.  I noticed this when he spontaneously grabbed Olivia by Ian Falconer off the library shelf this fall and read it constantly for the next month.  Sure, the pictures in Olivia are very cute, but each Olivia book has a real story and characters that my son now seems to appreciate.  Plus, I noticed he liked to “read” (a/k/a memorize) parts of books himself.  This new tendency, I suppose, is why I gave Dr. Seuss another chance.  The Dr. Seuss books, which tend to be long, are not ideal for the short attention span of a toddler, but as my son moves from the toddler stage into the preschooler stage, he’s ready for something more.  He likes the cadence and the rhyming of the words in Seuss books, which also helps him memorize the story.  I’m pretty sure he can recite most of The Cat in the Hat himself.  He chastises me if I read any part of it incorrectly.  Plus, even though there are a lot of words, the words are quite simple, which is ideal for pre-readers.  He may not be able to truly read yet, but my son can recognize easy words in context, like “cat,” and from there you get right to “hat,” “sat,” etc. etc.  Of course, you still need illustrations as a hook in a kid’s book, and Suessian drawings are pretty much iconic.  My son seems drawn to their whimsical nature.

I have no idea if my words-to-pictures ratio theory works for all kids, but it seems to be working for my son.  I’m sure there are other children with much longer attention spans than his who will sit through War and Peace by the age of 1.  If that’s the case with your child, well, then, ignore my advice completely.  Otherwise, I believe it is important ensure that your child is reading books that capture their interest, rather than forcing books upon them that they aren’t ready for, even if they are classics like the Seuss books that kids are “supposed” to like immediately.  Even if this means reading the horrific Potty Time With Elmo to your child ad nauseam for a few months (been there, done that), it will keep them excited about reading.  Eventually, they will move onto something a bit more interesting and advanced.

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