Jun 16, 2010

annoying picture books

I've been reading with interest some of the posts lately on other blogs about "bad books". Are there really books that can be said to be awful? Doesn't every book have a merit somwhere, if it has an appreciative reader? I'm not sure. I know there's a lot of books that simply don't appeal to me personally, but no matter what the reason I don't like them, there's bound to be other readers who do. On the other hand, books that have grammatical errors and other flaws seem to me they could have used a stronger editing hand. If the story is poor as well, I sometimes wonder why they ever got published.

So it struck me as kind of funny that on our latest trip to the public library, we picked up two books that disappointed me. They're both children's books, which I don't usually mention here, but they got me thinking so I'm going to write about them.

The first is a step-into-reading book with a Barbie theme. Now, I rarely ever censor my daughter's reading choices. Whatever she chooses at the library that she wants to read, I'll read it to her, even if I think it's silly. But the kid books based on cartoon episodes and movies can really annoy me. Usually the story is chopped up so much to fit into a book format that it makes an unsatisfying story. Barbie in A Mermaid Tale is based on a full-length animated movie (which I haven't seen). It's a book aimed at beginning readers, so the sentences are very short and simple. It begins like this (each line here is one page of text):
Merliah loves to surf. She is the best surfer in Malibu.
Merliah's hair turns pink! She dives into the water. She can breathe!
Merliah meets Zuma. Zuma is a dolphin. Zuma talks!
Zuma tells Merliah about her past. Merliah is half mermaid!
So... the story goes on to reveal that Merliah's mother, the rightful queen, has been imprisoned and her wicked aunt Eris taken over the undersea kingdom. Merliah gets a fake tail to swim, the help of some animal and mermaid friends, and goes on a quest to save her mother. She has to do three three things: find a magic comb and a special fish (dreamfish), and get the necklace her aunt wears. Here is where the story starts disintegrating. I'm assuming the comb and dreamfish are to help Merliah finish her quest and confront Eris, but there's no explanation of how they do that. After finding the dreamfish and getting his promise of help, the rest of the story reads like this:
Merliah has a plan. She grabs the necklace! Eris is angry.
Eris traps Merliah in a whirlpool.
Merliah accepts that she is a mermaid. She gets a real mermaid tail!
Merliah escapes! Eris is trapped in the whirlpool instead. Oceana is saved!
Then Merliah meets her mother, and there's a happy ending.

Uh... what happened here? The pictures give a little more information, but not much. It looks like Merliah is dancing to distract Eris, but then she just swims up and snatches the necklace? that's a plan? how did the dreamfish help? And the statement about accepting she's a mermaid seemed out of the blue. I'm guessing that's what enabled her to escape from the whirlpool, but again, no explanation. Both my daughter and I were left kind of scratching our heads at the end. She had a bunch of questions, and I just had to shrug. I don't know the story in its full context. Silly perhaps to get annoyed over a little kid's book like this, but why can't they make it just a bit more complete? Only two more pages would have fleshed out the story a bit more. I know the plug is to get kids interested in reading by publishing books on themes and characters they're already fans of, but do they have to make it inane?

Needless to say, my daughter likes the book anyway because it has mermaids, and the pictures are all very pretty, pink and sparkly. She doesn't care that the story has holes.

The other book was one I chose, because I loved the illustrations by Beverly Doyle. They're wonderful, lively, textured paintings depicting the environment of the ocean and shore, the waves, sky and creatures all rendered with beautiful attention. I was even more intrigued when I learned they were created with a medium I'm not very familiar with, airbrush. I thought at first they were watercolor or acrylic paintings!

The text of What the Sea Saw by Stephanie St. Pierre, starts out like this:
What the sea saw was sky above. / What the sky saw was sea below... / The sky saw soft, white-feathered wings dip into the foaming sea. / The gull saw fish in the sea swimming in schools, scales shimmering silver. / The fish saw light on the waves weaving into the deep.
Here the book abruptly changes tone. Instead of continuing the thread of what-something-saw (which I was rather enjoying) it becomes prose describing things:
Sandpipers ran across the wet sand leaving a trail of three-pronged footprints. / The gull screeched and flew through the heavy sky.
Then shows the events of an approaching storm and rainfall. Still very lovely, but I was thrown off at the change of rhythm. Then it goes back into the sea saw/ the sky saw thread, until the book closes with nightfall. I was puzzled again. I wanted to love this book. The illustrations are wonderful, and both the what-something-saw thread and the description of how seashore creatures experience the rainstorm are nice. But they don't seem to fit together. I would have enjoyed a book that just described the animals and events of the day on the seashore, or a book that linked everything together by showing what each animal saw. But put together it makes a jump in the middle that made me like it less.

So, this is a case of me not liking one book because I thought it was poorly written, and the other because it didn't quite meet my expectations. Maybe I'm being really picky, about not liking these kid books. If I had to give them ratings, I'd give the barbie book a 1, and the seashore book a 2. For a balance of opinion, do read about What the Sea Saw on Wild Rose Reader.


  1. Anonymous6/16/2010

    Yeah- there were some kids books that just annoyed me to death but my daughter loved. Kids just have different standards and really I like something pink and sparkly occasionally too - even though Fancy Nancy is more my style.

  2. I find a lot of children's books annoying too, but as long as the children are enjoying them then I don't mind.

    This looks like another case to support my no bad book theory - just the wrong person for the specific one ;-)

    I hope you find some books that you and your daughter enjoy soon!

  3. Oh yeah, those movie to early reader books can be HORRIBLE! My daughter was so into Barbie when she was younger, so we had them all. Makes you want to write a kids' book, doesn't it?

  4. Carolsnotebook- I try and keep the same perspective: if she likes it, that's good enough for me!

    Farmlanebooks- Oh, we have found plenty to enjoy. In the stack of a half-dozen brought home, these were the only two duds (and only in my opinion, she liked them regardless). I think I, myself, am just not the proper audience for children's books anymore!

    Sandy- Mine's only slightly into barbie, thank goodness. She has a few barbie dolls with outfits but is unaware there are films and cartoons out there (which I am fine with, really!)

  5. I'm not a big fan of commercialized kids books like the Barbie books ... though I get why they make them and I'm guilty of getting them for my son. But it still kills me a little inside.

    The other books sounds very inconsistent for reasons that don't seem clear. Now that I would have a bigger problem with as it seemed like it didn't have to be that way ... I would hold it to a higher level.

    And you're not alone in feeling like this. I read the "classic" Love Your Forever by Robert Munsch and found it horrifying. I wrote a post about it if you are interested ... it turned out that it is quite a divisive book!

    Here is the link:http://www.findyournextbookhere.com/2010/02/reading-with-little-one-love-you.html

  6. The kids I used to babysit for sometimes LOVED books that I thought were very inane. But I try not to be too judgey, because I learned to read from one of those little audiobook versions of the Disney Lady and the Tramp. I read it so often it fell apart.

  7. Jenners- I didn't care much for Love You Forever, myself! I just thought it was corny. Not charming, or touching, corny.

    The ocean book puzzled me- it was so lovely at first, and then the flow broke up. I didn't understand why that happened.

    Jenny- You know, I had a little Disney read-along book I read to pieces when I was small, too- I think it was Fox and the Hound. I try hard not to judge, and let her read what she wants. Sometimes I fear letting her read stuff that has bad grammar or glaring story holes will wedge those errors into her mind as the correct way, but then I figure it's going over her head at this point, she doesn't even notice and just loves the story and pictures!

  8. I think what's so horrible about the first book is the writing! Now I can understand if it's one of those read-it-yourself books, but how is this teaching kids? I guess to speak without transition, say three sentences where only one is required, and make everything as simplistic as possible. For example, couldn't the author have said, "Merliah meets Zuma who is a talking dolphin"? Of course, maybe it is a first book reader? I don't have young ones so I don't know how that works yet.

  9. Trish- my thoughts exactly. It is intended to be the first book a child tries to read on their own, thus the simplicity. But I think they made it too simple. It still should make sense, and sound smooth!

  10. That Barbie book would have driven me crazy too. I also can't stand it when characters in the early reader books have Names that are hard for little kids to figure out (like Merliah).

  11. Alyce- Actually, Merliah is just the kind of name my five-year-old would invent for a mermaid character, so she had no problem with it. I can see it being confusing for younger kids, though. And I've come across some I couldn't even pronounce before!


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