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Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Air: Reconnecting with Children’s Books as a Parent

By posted at 6:00 am on May 19, 2011 13

The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation.  When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.

I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid.  It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant.  Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:

covercoverThe Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817

For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales.  It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).

The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids.  As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.

There are benefits to this system.  For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away.  It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say.  For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.

coverJust the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his.  I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades.  It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention.  We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.

That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale.  It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.

In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back.  It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.”  As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.

I had a similar experience at the end of the story.  In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down.  The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on.  He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are.  In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.

As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child.  I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground.  Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.

I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid.  As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.

When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted.  The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.”  It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.

For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too.  It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.

Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?





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13 Responses to “Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Air: Reconnecting with Children’s Books as a Parent”

  1. Reconnecting with children’s books as an adult « Kevin Hartnett
    at 8:31 am on May 19, 2011

    […] with children’s books as an adult May 19, 2011 // 0 I’ve got a short essay up this morning about the experience of reconnecting with children’s books I loved as a kid […]

  2. Gail Gauthier
    at 7:25 pm on May 19, 2011

    “The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids.” It probably is true that parents look forward to sharing favorite books from their childhood with their children. However, I think a bigger reason for them sticking to the books they knew from their childhood, or to older titles they’ve heard of and believe to be classics, is the fact that many adults don’t know what is going on in children’s publishing. They aren’t aware of the tens of thousands of children’s books that have been published since Eric Carle published The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969.

    The disappearance of book reviews in general interest publications has been noted for years. But children’s books never received a lot of coverage in them. They’ve always been reviewed primarily in professional journals for educators, librarians, and booksellers and now at blogs that are probably read by the same people. Parents who aren’t children’s literature professionals will have a hard time learning about the cultural changes in children’s literature.

  3. Liz
    at 11:18 pm on May 19, 2011

    First off, I loooove Caps for Sale. I too remember it from my childhood, but I don’t know if my response was quite so dramatic (not consciously anyway). I do remember loving those red caps at the very top. And my 2-year-old loves it too. She loves a lot of the books that I once loved (ok, you got me, I still do), and she picks them off the shelf herself! But she does gravitate toward books that I would rather not read again and again as well.

    I make a point when we go to the library of letting her pick out any books she likes for the first half hour or so and reading them to her. The thing about toddlers is that sometimes it takes a little while or a few reads for them to connect with the book, so it’s often after the library that I realize there might have been something she liked that we didn’t bring home.

    I think parents have to pay really close attention to appreciate how a toddler might express that they like a book – talking about it, asking lots of questions about it, wanting it read over and over (ok, that one’s kind of obvious).

  4. Amanda
    at 9:09 am on May 20, 2011

    Interesting… I read to my two year old a few times a day. We usually read books that have been handed down by family, as well as my books, I loved as a child.
    They do include my beloved collection of Berenstain Bears, which I still enjoy as well as my daughter does now. I think it is a wonderful why to connect with your child as well as your own childhood memories.

  5. Ms. Yingling
    at 2:26 pm on May 20, 2011

    Interesting. I do think picture books hold up better than middle grade stories, which definitely go in and out of style. Everyone my age adored A Wrinkle in Time, and none of the students will pick it up now.

  6. blueheron
    at 11:26 am on May 21, 2011

    A great book! But you talk about your 4-year-old self and read it to your 2-year-old. Sometimes we rush our children by introducing a book they’d appreciate more a little later. It’s hard to resist when it’s a favorite.

  7. yedelstein
    at 5:17 pm on May 22, 2011

    All the books that I read when I was a kid are special to me and I would definitely have them in my home and read them to my children. Many of the books that I loved when I was young, my mother loved them when she was young too. What is so special about these books that they get passed down from generation to generation, from mother to child?
    As you said, the main reason is that children don’t pick their book, their parents do and they tend to be drawn to books that they like when they were kids. I think there is another reason too. Some authors and illustrators think a child might love their book because it has amazing picture or great writing. However, kids don’t think that deeply about the reason they love a book. Children are simple and not that particular at that young age. Little kid don’t care about style or trend, they love books that they can relate to in someway. Whether it is something they own themselves or something they do. They get excited when they see a toy in a book or a swing set that looks just like the one they have in their own backyard. Small things like the stars and the moon amaze kids. They also like to read books over and over again until they can read it to you. These things draw a kid to a book and keep them lasting, nothing amazing just plain and simple things.

  8. Lis
    at 10:15 am on May 27, 2011

    I like this piece. It speaks to the power of good stories, which stems in part from their capacity to affect us profoundly and variously at different stages of our lives. All of us will be served by your efforts to instill a love of literature in your little one, him most of all!

  9. Reconnecting with children's books as an adult | Growing Sideways
    at 9:01 pm on July 18, 2011

    […] books as an adult Posted on May 19, 2011 by kevinhartnett I’ve got a short essay up this morning about the experience of reconnecting with children’s books I loved as a kid […]

  10. New Links on the Block | Rockabye Baby!
    at 8:32 pm on July 28, 2011

    […] Also at The Millions, Kevin Hartnett reflects on reconnecting with children’s books as a parent. […]

  11. The Demise of the Book Review Section « Elizabeth Colton Walls
    at 7:17 am on March 23, 2012

    […] of several essays I enjoyed was by Kevin Hartnett on the appeal of classic children’s books. Did you love Caps for Sale […]

  12. Reading & Writing & Libraries « Unjustly
    at 8:31 pm on March 24, 2012

    […] The Millions : Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Air: Reconnecting with Children’s Books as a Parent […]

  13. The Demise of the Book Review Section | Elizabeth Colton Walls
    at 1:08 pm on June 13, 2013

    […] of several essays I enjoyed was by Kevin Hartnett on the appeal of classic children’s books. Did you love Caps for Sale […]

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