By: Dr. Shweta Verma*
Parents, teachers, and organizations working with children are often searching for good storybooks. Often we pick up what is visible in front of us. But the problem with picking up what is in front of us is that it may not serve the actual purpose that a story should serve for children. In this blog, let’s talk about the criteria that you should follow while choosing stories and storybooks for children.
What is the purpose of a story?
First, remember that a storybook can be with or without words, i.e. text. Now, let’s think about what purpose a story or a storybook needs to fulfill. A storybook or a storybook does the following:
- Builds vocabulary.
- Triggers and nurtures the imagination.
- Connect with characters and feel understood or ‘not alone’.
- Engages children (and adults!) to use time well while enjoying.
- Evolves reading skills.
- Familiarity with words, alphabets, and spellings for young readers.
- Learning opportunities for young authors as they pick up skills and methods by observing other stories.
- Learning about diverse people, experiences, and places. Where we can’t go physically, stories can definitely take us!
- Triggers curiosity – what happens next? or what is this photo/illustration about?
- Last but not least, it aligns with a child’s area of interest and is best chosen by the child itself if they are an early reader! Kids who are still in the early stages can be exposed to diverse areas and interests through different stories. So, it is okay if you don’t know their area of interest yet!
Therefore, before you choose a story or a storybook, it is good to see what purpose you want the story to fulfill for the child that it is for. Now, if you have decided on the purpose, let’s go to the second step: checking the story and reviewing it from certain criteria.
What are the criteria to select a good book or a story?
Here are 7 top tips for your find good storybooks for children. Find the story books that cover at least two of the following criteria.
1. Stories that normalize common feelings
All of us feel happy, sad, nervous, angry, excited, doubtful, and disappointed. These and other feelings are part of us and our interactions with the world. It is important that stories don’t stigmatize them. While we act in brave ways at different points in our everyday lives, bravery need not be glamorized or over-emphasized each time. Select a storybook where children or other characters express diverse feelings in non-stigmatizing ways. It is important the stories don’t end up emphasizing the “Don’t be nervous!”, or “Don’t be sad!” kind of attitude. Choose stories that tend to show characters that feel and navigate through these feelings and thoughts sometimes on their own and sometimes with the help of others.
2. Stories that are fun but don’t ridicule people on the basis of being different
Choose stories that respect diversity. Stories can be fun in several ways. But it is very important that this fun is not about ridiculing someone on the basis of how they talk, their accent, their vocabulary, their grammar, or how they look, how their hairstyle is, how their teeth are, what their height is. Stories should have respectful or real representations of how people from different faiths, castes, regions, and backgrounds behave in their everyday lives. Also, remember that these representations would present only a small or limited part of their lives. So, stories that might say that a person from a specific background is always or only like ‘That’, should be avoided.
3. Stories with diverse characters with different backgrounds and life experiences
Children, in their initial years, may have limited interactions with people beyond their families or neighborhood. New people they meet in school may or may not be so different from your child. So how would children know about different cultures, languages, ethnicities, contexts, etc? Stories would be a great medium for this. Find stories that show places and people that are new or different for children. Choose stories from authors of different origins and contexts as they bring different characters to life in their stories. Such stories will not only bring new perspectives but also new vocabulary. For example, look for stories from different regions of India (they could be translated stories) and the world.
4. Stories that show experiences related to rights or a social issue
Children are people with rights. They not only need to understand their own rights but also the rights of all in general. Stories are a great way to trigger thoughts on issues such as inclusion and exclusion, education as a right, right to play, protection issues, protecting the environment, income disparity, and so on. Instead of assuming that ‘children don’t need to know harsh realities’, assume that children are always observing what is happening around them. They have already seen diversity but they are probably still trying to make sense of all that they see. So, giving words to different realities and making sense can be facilitated through stories that focus on the same. By thinking more deeply about each character and asking questions, children may be able to explore answers too. Look especially for those storybooks that come with notes for parents and teachers. Most importantly, don’t assume that such stories would be boring or hard. Let the child experience, learn, and decide.
5. Stories where characters have healthy debates and discussions
Always reaching a consensus or agreeing should not be the goal. Children need to learn the important life skill of debating and discussing in a healthy manner. So, explore stories that showcase that through characters engaging in debates and discussions in a healthy way. This could be a good way to build communication skills too. Showing your disagreement in an assertive way while respecting boundaries is an important thing to learn.
6. Is popularity a good criterion?
For storybooks that are already well-known or established, a quick online search would bring up a list of good storybooks. Sometimes, when you don’t have a lot of time to explore, this could a good time-saving strategy. However, this strategy may not bring forth new stories or ones from diverse regions and contexts. Therefore, don’t go by popularity only. Be on the lookout for new publishers as well as new authors. Explore how their stories may be fulfilling the purpose for which you want to buy.
7. Are fairy tales or fantasy-based stories bad?
Some parents choose to move away from the fairy tales of fantasy-based stories. While one of the reasons is the fact that many of these fairy tales put gender roles in very stereotypical ways. For example, the princess is always rescued by a prince! Or ‘A happy married life’ is a happy ending for the stories. These stories have negative characters too and they are often with a particular ‘ugly’ look or with disability. At the same time, these stories give children exposure to the world of grownups. And of course, all is not happy and perfect in the world of grownups. But then the other point to remember is: children do observe what is happening around them. So, stories are not always different from the realities of this world.
If the concern is to help children grow as empathic beings without gender stereotypes, it is important that instead of avoiding fairy tales, we actually discuss with children about different aspects of it. So, ask:
“how the princess might have felt in a certain situation” or
“when does a prince need help?” or
“troublemakers don’t look like this always” or
“what questions do you have on the basis of what happened in this story?” or
“what did you find uncomfortable or odd”
All these are useful triggers to get into conversations on the problematic representations and stereotypes presented in a story.
Fantasy-based stories trigger the imagination. So, let’s not give up on stories that are not based in reality. Remember, that inventions happen when we imagine what does not exist in the current reality/context. So, let children imagine too.
Choosing a story needs your time and your perspectives. Give time and careful consideration while exploring and selecting stories. When you find something good, always recommend it to other parents and teachers too. Good stories need to be found, celebrated, and read by more and more children!
You can explore several stories based on reviews by Ginny’s Planet. You can explore the playlist HERE!
About Ginny’s Planet
Ginny’s Planet is a social enterprise Co-founded by Dr. Shweta Verma in 2019. The brand runs on the core value of helping our teachers and parents to teach their children to become independent, smart, and better leaders by equipping them with a deep understanding of empathy, diversity, disability, and inclusion. Dr. Shweta and the team design events, workshops, and products to help guardians & schools to develop kids’ mindsets and evolve as adaptive and flexible human beings. They work with schools to organize workshops for children and teachers.
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About the author:
*Shweta Verma is a social entrepreneur & a social work professional. She has faciliated several workshops with children and grown ups. She is Ph.D. (Social Work) in resilience & has two decades of work experience in the field of disability rights & mental health. Shweta is co-founder of Ginny’s Planet- a social enterprise that spreads empathy, respect for diversity, the spirit of inquiry, and inclusive practices.