If you've forgotten a great, un-copyrighted (i.e., old) book at school but needs to complete a reading assignment at home, here are a couple of free online resources that can help. You can also use these sites without an official school assignment, of course.
1. Read using Project Gutenberg.
2. Listen to LibriVox. This site can also be useful if you'd like to read along with a book that you have in print.
I wrote this piece after noticing, to my amusement, that even seemingly innocuous products are subject to vitriolic reviews online. My family owns and enjoy almost all of the books mentioned below, but it appears that not everyone feels so good about them.
Inspired by the comments of angry Amazonians, here are seven ways in which you might find a universally beloved children's book to be questionable.
1. It’s creepy.
A surprising number of readers fear Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 classic about a sleepy bunny.
“The red and green color scheme makes me uneasy,” writes a one-star reviewer.
Another detects something more serious in the author’s language. “[T]here seems to be an unpleasant undertone,” he warns, displeased by the bunny’s association with a “bowl full of mush.’”
But, “Worst of all,” laments another anonymous reviewer, “I find it creepy that”--wait for it--“the rabbits own a cat.”
(No, the reviewer wasn’t bothered by the rabbits’ possession of a house, rocking chair, and picture of a cow jumping over the moon. It was the cat that crossed the line.)
We own three copies of Goodnight Moon--all gifts--I know I also read it as a child. Personally, I appreciate the story's rhymes, repetition, and sedate images, but, admittedly, the sight of the book's cover makes me cringe. Is it just me, or is anyone else bothered by that missing comma between “Goodnight” and “Moon”? Creepy.
2. It encourages mischief.
The 1955 classic Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, with its monochromatic illustrations of a boy who draws his way through a nighttime adventure, caused “pain and suffering in my household” for one Amazon reviewer. Why? “Purple crayon everywhere.”
In preparation for reading this book to my two-year-old, I have preemptively hidden our purple crayons, markers, paint, Play-doh, and pureed prunes.
3. It has unclear illustrations that lead to trouble.
Case in point: Once Upon a Potty, by Alona Frankel, in which, as a disgruntled parent warns, “The potty they have looks like a flower pot.” Eep.
4. It’s scientifically inaccurate.
One Amazon user cites the “poor scientific knowledge” in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle, as the reason for her one-star review. “Butterflies do not come from cocoons - moths do…. If you want your child[ren] to learn inaccurate science, use this book with them.” Most butterflies come from chrysalises—though you can visit Carle’s website for his rebuttal to this concern, if you’re interested.
The same reviewer mentions nothing about the caterpillar’s Saturday feast of cupcakes, ice cream, and salami; presumably it is scientifically accurate.
5. It’s dangerous.
Reviewers want hands-on books to be hands-off. Have you seen “Daddy’s scratchy face” in the classic touch-and-feel book Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt? It’s a tiny swatch of black emery board that approximates a five-o’clock shadow. It’s also “a piece of sandpaper which is so rough that I would not let my son touch it in case it hurts his soft skin.”
(Incidentally, I learned when I bought this book that “Pat” is a verb, not the name of the bunny, as did an anonymous one-star reviewer who deemed the book “a really [sic] disappointment.”)
P.S. It's not just children at physical risk from children's books; apparently parents have faced injury as well. As “A Customer” says of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, “I'm going to give it one star anyway because I just stubbed my toe really hard and damn it, I blame this book.”
6. It’s defective.
The identity of this (aforementioned) book is obvious: “The bunny fur already came off in big clumps with the first pat.”
7. It messes with your routine.
Specifically, parents do not take kindly to books that threaten bedtime. Beloved Sandra Boynton faced recrimination on Amazon over The Going-to-Bed Book. One reviewer "just can't get passed [sic]" Boynton's story, asking, "Had the author lost her marbles when she wrote this?"
Another reviewer threw the book away for including in the characters’ routine something that is “not a concept I want to promote with my child.”
What prompted the backlash? A rabbit, dog, cat, bear, lion, and two rhinoceri run around to exercise. After bath time. As if that’s not bad enough, a pig stands on his hands, an elephant jumps rope, and a moose lifts a barbell. Also after bath time.
To be fair, based on mounting evidence in my own home, I'm getting the sense that bedtime is difficult with or without this book.
Realistically, no book could possibly please 100 percent of parents 100 percent of the time, and no book should. What I've learned is that a bad review--even one that raises valid concerns--isn't necessarily a reason to avoid reading a book with my daughter. In many cases, I take the opportunity to point out any troublesome spots to her, thereby modeling the process of being a critical reader. "Dat doesn't make sense!" our daughter has taken to exclaiming when she sees something odd, such as a moose lifting a barbell. She and I giggle, and then we turn the page and keep reading.
Throughout the day, my toddler and I chat about her interests (currently: carrot sticks, wearing Daddy's shoes, and the giraffe toothbrush holder on our bathroom mirror), but I've often wondered how much our talks really matter.
Quite a bit, as it turns out. According to research done back in the early '90s by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley at the University of Kansas:
...the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school.
Motivated by this type of data, the city of Providence, RI, recently received a $5 million grant to train pregnant mothers in the art of family conversations, as reported by the New York Times on April 10th in "The Power of Talking to Your Baby." The city aims to reduce the disparity between the language abilities of higher- and lower-income children. How big is that difference? The statistics are shocking. Here's what Hart and Risley found:
By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family.
Broken down further:
Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words.
In other words, children on welfare hear about 10 words a minute, working-class children hear about 20, and children from professional families hear about 35.
(Complicating the issue is Hart and Risley's finding that children's language abilities "level off" when children reach their parents' level of linguistic competency. I'm still mulling over the implications of that finding.)
The Times article is worth a read, especially if you'd like more information about planned efforts in Providence. In terms of parenting advice, here, for me, were the takeaways:
Keep in mind that research also shows that parents tend to talk to girls more than boys. Make sure you're actively engaging your son(s) in conversation.
TV is not an adequate substitute for human interaction. According to the Hart and Risley study, "TV talk not only didn't help, it was detrimental."
If you have a nanny or another caregiver for your young child, make sure he or she understands the importance of frequent language interaction.
Above all, talk with your children. Sure, toys are fun, but the words you share with your children may turn out to be the greatest gifts you could give them.
If you're interested in reading more about Hart and Risley's findings, the book they co-authored is Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.
If your holiday wishes include spreading awareness about global needs--and, by extension, making a big-picture difference in the world--consider the following gifts.
1. For even the youngest children, see Barbara Kerley's books, which feature her vibrant photographs of parents and children around the world. Thanks to A Little Peace, my toddler knows that all it takes to make a difference is, as she says, "uhn hand!" We also own You and Me Together, which has prompted discussions about everything from the brass neck rings of a Padaung mother and daughter in Thailand to the colored powder decorating a mother and child celebrating India's Holi festival.
3. If you'd like to make a monetary donation in your child's name, consider the International Rescue Committee, which provides support for refugees in humanitarian crises, and Heifer International, which allows donors to select from among 30 different animals to donate as a form of sustainable agriculture to families in need around the world. To make a Heifer gift more tangible for a child--and to increase the likelihood that he or she will remember and think about this type of giving--attach a matching stuffed animal (or a small animal figurine) to a note in which you explain the donation.
4. Several photojournalists have used their art to document the differences between and within borders. Peter Menzel photographed families posed in front of their homes with all their worldly possessions, a project you can see in Material World. He's also put together a similar book focusing solely on women's issues and three others depicting what families and individuals eat. (What the World Eats is intended for kids. Menzel's other books are intended for adults, so you may want to pre-screen them to determine whether you think their content is suitable for your children. Though fascinating, Material World contains sad background information about some of the families, and the extreme inequity between families could be too troubling for some readers.)
Another book along these lines is Where the Children Sleep, which uses James Mollison's photographs and descriptions to document the range of accommodations in which children sleep, from mattresses in fields to luxury bedrooms in the suburbs. (The same warning I issued in the previous paragraph applies for this book. Perhaps best as a gift for an adult or older teen.)
5. Also for adult gift recipients (or mature young adults), try the Half the Sky documentary (2012), an incredible look at the oppression of women worldwide--and the way that select activists are making a difference to females who would otherwise live without literacy, shelter, safety, or respect. I have not read the Half the Sky book on which the documentary was based, but I've heard it's also outstanding.
A couple of months ago, a friend brought Roominate to my attention. It's a building toy designed for girls, intended to inspire females to enter the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. There are no excessive frills, glitter, or princesses. Instead, girls (or boys) snap together basic wooden pieces to build rooms and furniture, then use circuitry to illuminate and otherwise electrify their creations.
According to this article from GOOD, the project has exceeded its requested funds on Kickstarter, sold out its initial 1,300 units, and has a waiting list for its next batch. Parents, consider:
The women say they were all given the tools at a young age to eschew gender stereotypes. Brooks got a saw when she asked for a Barbie. Kessler loved to solve math riddles. Chen grew up building Lego creations with her brother, never being told that the toy was intended for boys.
I have had the pleasure of knowing several brilliant female engineers, and this strikes me as exactly the kind of toy that they (and I) would have liked as children.
Speaking of building opportunities, check out Brightworks, a project-based, private, nonprofit K-12 school in San Francisco, and Tinkering School, which aims to "explore the notion that kids can build anything, and, through building, learn anything" and runs summer programs in Austin, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, LA, and Northern California.