Sunday, February 10, 2008

Building a Personal Library

One of the most effective ways of creating an environment in which a child is likely to learn to love to read is to have many, many choices of books from which they can pick. Let them swim in a sea of books. The more books there are, the more likely that there is at least one which will grab their fancy. It only takes a few sparks to kindle the fire and the more kindling you have lying around, the more likely the blaze is to take hold.

Why buy books in the first place? They are expensive, they take up space, they are subject to being torn up, etc., etc.

To a true book lover, this is almost a heretical question. Beyond all the pragmatic answers though (you need a core of books to which you can reliably turn at any time, books that will be re-read many times are natural candidates for purchase, and so on), there is, at the core of it, the desire of a child to have and to hold that which is dear to them. After perhaps a favorite stuffed toy, a favorite blanket, I suspect the next most common childhood beloved possession is a treasured book.

Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one. - Augustine Birrell

A room without books is like a body without a soul. - Cicero

There are many considerations in building a library. Here are a few general principles to consider.


I like the Dutch philosopher (1469 - 1536) Erasmus' perspective - "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." However, we are not all in a position to pursue Erasmus's strategy.

There is a cascade of affordability that shapes what fits your budget. For most people, the local library is the primary foundation on which to build a personal collection. You check out many volumes of books and have them lying around for sampling. Those that get read repeatedly and checked out again and again, become candidates for purchase.

Next most affordable is to find the books you are seeking at used bookstores. Across the country there are a small handful of used book stores that focus primarily on children's books, but usually you will find in any major city a couple or three really good used book stores which also have a good selection of children's books. Don't overlook library sales as a source of children's books; if you know what you are looking for (particular titles, authors or genres), you can often find a bagful for startlingly low prices. You just have to keep a sharp eye on the quality (torn pages, etc.).

One of the real pleasures of scouting used book stores is the surprises that are guaranteed to surface. Robert Graves a children's author? Keep your eyes open for The Green Book. How about Ian Fleming of James Bond fame? He was the author of Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang! There are all sorts of surprises out there.

If you are going to buy new books, you still have the decision of what form the books should take.


Typically among children's books, particularly classics, there are two sets of issues - Physical Form and Edition.

Under the rubric of physical form you have an ascending order of durability; paperback, turtleback bindings, board-books, hardback, and library binding. Turtle-back bindings are basically reinforced paperbacks. The cost of books rises from cheapest at paperback (the least durable) to most expensive at library binding (the most durable).

Board-books are children's books rendered on small format hard cardboard pages that are usually reasonably resistant to infant abuse. This is an interesting form. There are a good number of books that were originally released in standard paperback or hardback versions that I think are especially good for the very youngest of children in board book format. Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, Good Dog, Carl, etc. The traditional format books are nice because they are bigger and take up more of a child's visual horizon. There is something though, about board books, to which every infant I have ever read to, seems to respond to - perhaps it is that it is a size for them to reach out to clasp. Or perhaps it is that they fit into the mouth of a teething child. We have a good number of well loved and thoroughly gnawed board books lying around.

Where in the continuum of durability it makes sense to invest, depends on some further heritage issues.


How big a family do you have or are you anticipating? A single child? Then you probably can get away with mostly paperbacks. If they end up having a number of favorites that get dragged all over creation, you can upgrade those on an individual basis to hardbacks.

If, on the other hand you have or anticipate having multiple children, it probably makes most sense, if you can afford it, to go ahead and buy hardbacks for the classics and the favorites of your own childhood. The price differential between a paperback and a hardback is such that you are better off buying a single more expensive hardback edition that will survive being handed from one to another child than to have to replace a paperback that ends up being loved to death.

Because children's book publishing is quixotic in the extreme, there is little way of predicting whether a book your children have loved will still be in print twenty years from now. Online internet searches make it feasible to find just about any kind of book but the condition and price might be a shocker.


Once you have an idea as to what form of binding is going to make sense, then you have a few more decisions to make, or at least to be aware of. Some of the things to watch out for are:

• Bi-lingual editions - Many classic books are now being rendered into bilingual versions. This is great if your child is learning a second language and you intentionally buy it for the bilingual text. It is frustrating if you are not aware that you are buying a bilingual edition.

• Pop-up editions - These are usually pretty obvious. Some kids love them. I am not particularly enthusiastic about pop-ups and they often have a pretty short half-life. You might want to try out a couple with your kids, but my general recommendation would be to use your money on real books.

• Publishers frequently release old classics on anniversary occasions (e.g. fiftieth anniversary of first publication). That is great if that is all they do. However, they frequently end up doing specially packaged editions with a stuffed toy or some other items packaged up with the book. It's up to you - I have always told our kids I buy toys in a toy store and books in a book store.

• Abridged and bowdlerized editions - This is where it begins to get especially tricky and you need to keep a particularly sharp eye open. Abridged editions typically are shortened in some way to make it "easier" for a contemporary child to read. This change might encompass the simple excision of certain passages, characters or even whole chapters. Sometimes it extends to changing a few words that are now considered objectionable or archaic. Sometimes, the story is basically retold in a shorter "crisper" form with more contemporary language.

In general I am reasonably opposed to abridgements and simplified retellings. I am especially inclined to steer clear of the versions that pander to contemporary fads, by changing the language so that it is less classist, sexist, or racist or whatever the perceived source of injury might be. This is just a bit precious - our children are capable of reading these stories in their original form without becoming prejudiced homophobic, misogynistic, racists. Far better, from my perspective, is to read the original text and discuss what it is that has changed and why such phrases or attitudes may no longer be acceptable than to simply try and airbrush it out of history.

So look closely for signs that a book is an abridgement or has been subject to new editing.

There are a couple of variations on abridgement which actually serve a worthwhile purpose and you might want to consider. The first is when a story is retold in briefer more contemporary language to allow a much younger reader to enjoy the story earlier than their reading skills might allow. For example, The Adventures of Gulliver is a fairly sophisticated text with some archaic stylings and language. A firm reading of it is probably not feasible before 8th or 10th grade. But it is a great story and there are a number of abridgements designed to be read by 4th or 5th graders. To me an abridgement that enables an earlier reading and helps prepare a child to read the more sophisticated version later can be useful but a dumbed down text targeted at an older reader is of questionable value. The challenge is that there are a lot more attempted abridgements for younger readers than there are successful abridgements for younger readers.

The second variation is akin to this and that is the rendering of some classic in a graphic format. I am inclined towards a catholic attitude towards reading - most everything is fair game. When I was coming up, I recall reading Junior Classics, a series of comics that were graphical renditions of children's classics. I read all that I could lay my hands on and enjoyed them thoroughly. Many I went on later to read in their original form. For some books, my only knowledge of that title is that which I recall from that early comic book version. I am comfortable with the thought that a little flawed knowledge is better than no knowledge at all.

• Finally, beware of editions that are re-releases of books published before 1923. These are books that are now out of copyright and therefore subject to some rough editorial man-handling. Most publishers are pretty respectful and keep things as they were but it is not uncommon to do some bowdlerizing of language or to bestow a jazzier, more contemporary title.

Accentuate the Positive

This is just a personal bias on my part but it is certainly an issue we have encountered raising our children in the current book publishing environment. There is a plethora of books that to my way of thinking, are just plain faddishly self-indulgent, shallowly hectoring, special pleading, transparent attempts by the author to take some moral high road at the expense of history and current readers. Read through any list of prize winners, books reviewed in publishing industry magazines, etc. and you are quickly struck by the sheer volume of books that are focused on racism, social dysfunction, abuse in various forms, historical inequities, perceived injustices, etc.

Please do not mistake my criticism. These are all fair issues and there are certainly circumstances where as a parent you might want or need to focus on alcoholism, drug addiction, AIDS, etc. No, my issue is simply the preponderance of these tomes.

I am not of the school that believes a child is forever tainted by what they read. I think they are more robust than that. On the other hand, an unremitting diet of negativity, defeatism, victim glorification, and caustic skepticism cannot but help jade a young mind.

Consequently, one of the goals of Through the Magic Door is to identify those books that are inherently positive or constructive while being great reads: classic books which are compelling and sometimes humorous stories in and of themselves, but which when read by different readers, or read for a second or third time, reward each reader and each reading with a new idea or theme to consider. If there is a serious issue to be addressed, these books set it within the context of a well told story with many layers rather than by hitting the reader over the head with a moralistic point.

Again, this is not to say that some of these books have no place in a well-stocked personal library; just in moderation.

Message Books

Related to the idea of accentuating the positive, there is an additional issue of the past twenty or thirty years of which to be mindful. There is a very large cadre of "Message Books". These are basically books where platitudinous statements are strung together as a substitute for actually writing an engaging story. They are almost always aimed at some simplified singular idea: potty training, starting school, moving house, bullying, death, etc.

There are a few series which address these themes with some modicum of storytelling capacity and are useful to use with kids. The Berenstain Bears and the Franklin series spring to mind. There are many, many more that are simply a waste of good paper and of your child's time.

Again, there can be legitimate issues that you want to address with your children, but our position is that it is far better to do so by finding a book whose story is so engaging that your child is gripped by the tale and that within the context of that story it happens to also address the particular issue.


Ouch! Every book lover you might know has encountered this one. Where do you put all those books. Once the bug has bitten and if you can afford to buy books plentifully you soon encounter the limits of space, even in the large houses that have become so common over the past thirty years.

The obvious answers (aside from move to a larger house) are to increase the density of books in any given room (more bookshelves) and expand the number of rooms that are candidates for holding books (bedrooms certainly, the den, the recreation room, and nooks and crannies of most other rooms).

I have reached that stage in life where the house has effectively been filled almost as full as it can be with books. I have purchased some additional time by renting a storage unit, but that is a temporary salve. I know I am going to have to become a more imaginative space manager. I sometimes feel like Elizabeth Brown in Sarah Stewart's The Library.

Sarah Stewart, The Library

Books were piled on top of chairs
And spread across the floor.
Her shelves began to fall apart,
As she read more and more.

Big books made very solid stacks
On which teacups could rest.
Small books became the building blocks
For busy little guests.

When volumes climbed the parlor walls
And blocked the big front door,
She had to face the awful fact
She could not have one more.

There is no easy answer or resolution to this, save one. Redefine interior decorating as the art of arranging books on all surfaces within a house.


Especially for young children, but applicable to all - Never underestimate the value of beautiful and detailed illustrations. There is an unfortunate over-abundance of children's books illustrated in some style derivative of South Park - a commercially cheap mutant fusing of Introduction to Geometry with Drawing 101.

Innovation and a wide variety of styles has its place but particularly for young children, before they are able to conceptualize about text and words, they are able to "read" pictures and the closer those pictures align with their world and the more detail there is for them to explore, the more engaged they tend to be with the story itself. Even into the independent reader/chapter book years, the aesthetic value of beautiful illustrations is an important contributor to the enjoyment of a book by both child and adult.

Beyond the run of the mill, well produced books, there are also a number of publishers who specialize in producing top-notch, high quality books with a very high aesthetic index. I am thinking of such publishers as the Folio Society and David R. Godine. Some of their catalogue is quality renditions of old favorites such as Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, etc. Sometimes not only is the quality of the publication of value but also the selection itself, resurrecting old favorites that have not been in print for years or decades.

I am an enthusiastic buyer of books from these publishers, however, most children are not well-equipped to treat these beautiful books with the respect that they warrant. These are books for you, not necessarily for your child.

Reading Ability

Hitch Hiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words Don't Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover. from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Don't Panic!

The wonderful variability and individuality of children shows up in many ways, not least in their reading capability. Where you can help the most is by inculcating the desire to read - by reading to them, talking with them, singing with them, by being seen to read, etc. When they have the desire, they will figure out how to read. It is easy to get caught up in the endless pedagogical debates about whole word versus phonics; to so closely monitor reading ability that you end up conveying the unintended message that reading is solely a skill to be accomplished, a task; to be so concerned about what they are reading compared to their peers and injecting the message that it is a race or competition.

We will cover reading ability in more detail in a later Pigeon Post essay but remember - Don't Panic!

Letting Go

One of the pleasures of being a parent is introducing your child to stories that you enjoyed as a child or even stories that you had wished to read as a child but for some reason never got to.

But this trip down memory lane is sometimes fraught with disappointment. As I have been emphasizing in this essay, children are their own people. There is a certain symmetry though. What you enjoyed they may not, and certainly what they enjoy you may not.

Of all my childhood books that I have introduced to our three kids, probably 90% have been a hit with at least one. That sounds pretty good except that I thought all of them would like all of the books. Ah well.

Selecting Books

In summary:

• Have lots of books, magazines, newspapers, comics (all the old-fashioned stuff) lying around.

• Let your child choose what he or she wants to read with as much latitude as possible.

• Make sure there is a range of reading materials ahead and behind their nominal age.

• Don't worry about how well they are reading, focus on making sure they love to read.
• Accentuate the positive.

• Pick books that have beautiful, detailed illustrations and are fun to look at.

Suggestions for starting out are contained in a couple of booklists:

Nursery Starter Library

American Expatriates

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