The Three Kinds of Books for Kids

I’ve recently taken an interest in the classification of books for kids. I know, I’m strange and boring all at the same time. I don’t know how I do it. Anyway, it’s been on my mind and after trying to explain some of my ideas to my three-year old son I’ve come up with a short list of three kinds of books, The three. Have a glance at them and please disagree with me. Like I said I have an interest in it and I’d actually like to come up with something more concrete.

Funny Books

Kids just plain love funny books and I think it deserves a whole category. And it’s no slight being put in the “funny” category. Humans laugh. Stop being so serious and get over it. Read Ion by comic master, Plato, or something. We need funny books and funny books can be important.

Adventure Books

At the risk of sounding corny, life is an adventure—wait, ugh, that does sound corny. Um, adventure books in my mind are Odyssean, that is, essentially, someone goes somewhere and has some trouble getting back. Odyssean adventure, or the Journey Home, always shows up on reductionist plot/theme lists (like this one!) and some days I think it’s the only story.

Wisdom Books

Finally, we have Wisdom Books. When you’re reading your child Bible stories or books on manners or nouns you’re reading wisdom literature. There’s no ancient literature specialists reading this is there? No? Good. Yes, you’re reading wisdom literature. And I don’t think a book has to start out as wisdom literature either. Parents make it wisdom by feeding it to their children. A parent’s authority makes it wisdom. For example, I grew up thinking Doc Savage was wisdom literature.

The Crossover, Grown-up Reading, Your suggestions

Of course, most books crossover into more than one category. We have wise books that are funny and funny adventures and so on. Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go sits in all three of my categories. But my categories completely fall apart for grown-up reading and I should stress here that I know almost nothing about serious literary criticism—but you knew that already. Anyway, for adult reading I’ll be super-reductionist and say there is only comedy or tragedy. Aristotle backs me up, so it’s a safe bet (you know, if ignoring a couple thousand years of literary theory and development can be considered a safe bet).

Like I said, please disagree with me and throw in your suggestions. Comment away.

12 responses to “The Three Kinds of Books for Kids”

  1. I assume you mean fiction categories. I have real issues with schools letting kids read the montage books of race cars, ball players, or animals and consider it equivalent to a historical or speculative story.

    So. One classification: Opinion or persuasive – religious or cause oriented, intended to change the reader’s perception or acceptance of a concept, such as ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’.

    Growing up, or coming of age. Examine a character changing to accept responsibility, overcome egocentric or bad habits and perspectives.

    Insight. Examine a character’s abilities, or relationships, or interests to help the reader relate to the characters and relationships. Historical, speculative, or regional setting, the point is to set a locale for the story that lets the reader dissociate their personal environment from how people act and react. This is perhaps the best kind of reading,for learning about people and about yourself. This would include the over-anthropomorphised animal books – Jim Kjelgaard’s “Big Red”, “Rufus the Red-Tailed Hawk”. Or “Curious George”.

    Of non-fiction there are the dictionary/encyclopedia type compilation of .. stuff.

    Then there are the examinations of a topic. Biographies, woodworking projects, development of various blacksmith tools or practices, accounts of events. News stories and in-depth articles. Either refereed or not, the intent is an unbiased explanation, even though there is always a bias – the perspective of the author, the choice of scope and breadth, choice of what to include and what to omit, how much coverage to give each aspect of the story.

    And there are the editorials, an unvarnished expression of opinion. Like philosophy. Or blog comments!

  2. Shoot, right. I mean fiction categories. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Opinion or persuasive: You’ll have to persuade me on this one. 😉 I mean, isn’t all fiction an attempt at being persuasive, a sharing of opinion. My son has this toddler book with an angry duck you’ve got to tickle. Even that has a point, “don’t be a grump.” It may be slight but it’s there.

    Coming of age: I think I’ll put it in. Maybe. I thought about it but it’s a reflection of the journey home and is sort of adventure in my mind and you know, I’m super-reductionist…

    Insight: I think I’m going to have to explode my wisdom category to account for opinion/insight now.

    Fact: I totally forgot about fact! Thanks, Brad.

  3. Sometimes fiction is about expressing an idea. Other times it is about exploring an absurdity, or escape from the mundane reality of this world: fun.

    Your grumpy duck might be a coming of age story – maturing to a better understanding and mastery of social skills. It is certainly intended to lead your child to mastering social skills. And listing this book as fiction raises a question in my mind – is this intended to train or to entertain? I’m not completely sold on listing Grumpy Duck as fiction.

    How is that for ‘ducking’ a question?

    I agree, most coming of age stories are adventures, at least of the spirit and many are action type adventures. Like Frodo’s epic journey in Lord of The Rings (Tolkein). Is LOTR about destroying a fictitious ring, or about growing beyond your boundaries, your garden gate, to take your place in the larger world? Is the central notion of LOTR the fictitious epic journey of Frodo and the companions, or about Frodo’s spiritual journey?

    Actually, for coming of age books, I think of Tamora pierces’ quartets – Magic Circle, Protector of the Small, The Immortals, etc., Beka Cooper, The Circle Opens. Anne McCaffrey’s DragonSong, DragonSinger, Dragon Drums, White Dragon, Dragon Quest. Elizabeth Moon’s Once a Hero, Sheepfarmers Daughter, Trading in Danger. Palmer’s Emergence. Andre Norton’s Jargoon Pard and many others. Heinlein’s Door Into Summer, and Have Space Suit Will Travel. Robyn McKinley’s Beauty, Deerskin, Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword. Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen, Arrow’s Flight, Arrows Fall, Magic’s Pawn, By the Sword. Allan Dean Foster’s ‘Codgerspace’. 😉 Robert Asprin’s Another Fine Myth. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Balance of Trade. Christopher Rowley’s Bazil Broketail.

    The coming of age category would cross other category boundaries – historical or speculative. The common concept is to examine the experiences and insights of a character gaining in maturity. The aspect that changes is the character of the character – integrity, responsibility, and finding a place in their community. The maturing character or characters serve as examples and heroes for the reader. The story setting may be adventure, or mystery, or horror, or drama, or whatever. For mature readers, the coming of age stories instruct about growing, and training others. For me the coming of age stories often offer a simplified universe, the successes and obstacles all seeming larger than life. Simpler pleasures, simpler moral depictions, simpler virtues. In most cases, the coming of age story is told as a young adult or young reader level story. And the young are less apt to the cultured depravities of experienced elders. As per Harry Potter’s nemesis Malfoy, who is a pale shadow of the corrupt evil of Malfoy’s father.

    Many books would not be classified as ‘coming of age’, Take 007, James Bond. The technology and bad guys change, but the secret agent is as sophisticated and urbane in the first book as in the latest movie. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys never really left their target audience age. Amazing to spend so many days and weeks in each book, and never really grow up. Harry Potter never really seems to mature – we just skip to the next class year and whatever Harry we find this time. There seems to be an impulse to show the developing maturity of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, but within each book the effort is really weak, no disrespect to J.K. Rowling. Mostly we just skip to the next maturity level with each new book.

    One more thought about fiction. Most fiction, I think, is written to sell books. The market is readers hungry for stories. Story tellers at Renaissance Fairs, county fairs, and Cowboy events are popular. Stories illustrate how silly people and heroes and common people act. Stories express community values and virtues. A good story makes us think, long after the telling is complete or the book closed. So the writer writes to sell, people read to learn and to pass the time, and for the rewards of reliving the tale with the author or story teller. (I still contend a book worth reading is worth re-reading. How many times have you been through the Grumpy Duck book?) I think fiction is about a journey, that the listener or reader takes in imagination with the author or story teller.

    Non-fiction might be told as a story, with a journey that involves the emotions and the imagination, or it might be as bald a report as some third-page below-the-fold newspaper story. Or somewhere in between. Fiction occasionally explores alternate expressions, but successful fiction, good stories, almost always involves engaging the reader. So you might say that the fiction author is writing persuasive prose, intending to get ‘the point’ to the reader, but I think with fiction the point of the activity is the journey, not the destination. The destination in fiction might simply end the journey, so the reader or listener can emerge successfully from the story.

  4. Interesting classifications. Helps… in a weird way…

  5. Helping in a weird way is pretty much my M.O., Eric. Welcome to Upper Fort Stewart.

  6. Brad, I think I’ve got a revised post coming. I’ll definitely take your thoughts into consideration. Thanks for all the effort you’ve put in. The next redesign is going to have a bigger text area in the comments, pretty much just for you. 🙂

  7. Ian,

    No! No! My first rule of Parenting is “Don’t Reward Bad Behavior!”

    It seems the current text box works OK for you and for me. Heaven forbid I should feel .. challenged .. lol!

  8. well.. there are also popup books 🙂
    Even I love reading them with my 2.5 year old daughter 😉

  9. Hmm, I think that the majority of Pratchett books under “wise and funny”, and whilst some of his texts are aimed squarely at the kids (and enjoyed nonetheless by those who are purportedly “grown ups”) such as “Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” or “Wintersmith”, I think most of his books kids would love. You have the story, the – very British – humour and usually a lesson or two in how the world works. Race, religion, mortality, commerce, politics; all covered with kid friendly elves and dwarves. And dragons. And…you get the picture.

  10. Pop-up books= Wonder books. Books that exist for spectacle’s sake. Where’s Waldo, Cross-sections and whatnot. Or maybe not. That’s just what I’m thinking right now. 😉

    Pratchett is someone that I’ve been afraid to read. Not because I’m afraid I won’t “get” him but I just don’t know where to start. It seems like he’s written hundreds of books. Maybe you could suggest something?

    Welcome to Upper Fort Stewart, inspirationbit and Simon.

  11. Thanks for welcoming me in…I found myself here by way of the “I Love Typography” ( site who featured you on Sunday on the front page as a site that uses type well. Books, typography, absolutely interlinked, but I digress…

    Pratchett – where to begin…

    If you’re planning on a decent chunk of his work (and once you start, you’ll be hooked) then begin at the beginning with “The Colour of Magic”. Essentially beginning with a twist on the Great Fire of London, moving swiftly through notions of our fate in the hands of gambling Gods with nothing better to do than play boardgames with us as pieces, “foreigners” and tourists, in a fantasy setting and a stomping story.

    Ah. The “F” word. Don’t let that put you off. Pratchett’s characters are among some of the most well crafted and rounded you’ll find in any genre (I’m not a “traditional “fantasy reader” reader myself and his stories dense and interwoven. You will find yourself re-reading a few pages back now and again, and he eschews the traditional chapter for pieces; some long, some short.

    There is a handy guide on Wikipedia ( on the separate series themes. As to where to begin, personally, as above with “The Colour of Magic” but each title has it’s own page if you jump to the link, with a plot summary. You’ll see Pratchett pulls from classical literature, myths, language and very modern notions such as the internet. If you like dark stories, The Witches books are great (and opening with the best parody on Macbeth I’ve read), as are the Death books. Death MAY TALK LIKE THIS, but he’s nice to cats and small children and has a horse called Binky. He is just doing a job after all. The first book, “Mort” is a coming of age/rites of passage tale in extremis, perfect for kids who love a good story. And cloaked skeletons with scythes. The Rincewind books (CoM the first) are genuinely slapstick comedy in very serious stories.

    Enough! Pick one (if it’s not a standalone, the first one from a series) and give them a go. I don’t know anyone who’s ever disliked one. “Not my cup of tea” maybe, but he’s often compared to PG Wodehouse and his humour, like Wodehouse’s can be a love or hate thing.

    Thanks again for the welcome. s

  12. Colours of Magic is going on the list. Thanks, Simon.

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