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Originally published Friday, October 15, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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New guide to children's books for parents

Kids' books: "A Family of Readers" is a gem of a guidebook for parents trying to select books for their children.

Scripps Howard News Service

Reading with your children is one of the joys of parenthood. But knowing what to read isn't always intuitive.

Now there's a gem of a guidebook to help parents navigate the world of children's literature. Titled "A Family of Readers" (Candlewick Press, $22), this book is a wonderfully knowledgeable and highly opinionated guide to books for children ages infant through teen. The book's editors, Roger Sutton and Martha Parravano, are the perfect guides. Sutton is editor in chief, and Parravano is executive editor, of The Horn Book Magazine, a monthly journal regarded by many as the bible of children's literature.

In his introduction to "A Family of Readers," Sutton makes his intentions clear: "This is not a book for parents who badly want their children to read but are 'too busy' to read for their own pleasure. It's for parents who wish their children would be a wee bit more understanding when Mom or Dad is lost in a book."

The stance of "A Family of Readers" on kids and reading is simple. As Sutton puts it: "Don't think of books for young people as tools; try instead to treat them as invitations into the reading life. That life can be a rich place, comprised of the highbrow and the lowdown, the casual and the ambitious, private reading and public sharing. As a parent in that landscape, you'll need to be sometimes traveling companion, sometimes guide, sometimes off in your own part of the forest."

Inspired by this philosophy, Sutton and Parravano have divided "A Family of Readers" into four parts that roughly follow a child's development: "Reading To Them"; "Reading With Them"; "Reading On Their Own"; and "Leaving Them Alone." Each section comprises a mix of essays by — and interviews with — noted children's-book authors, illustrators and experts, plus annotated lists of suggested books for each age group. Numerous children's-book illustrations are scattered throughout, and add to the fun of reading this book.

Sutton or Parravano provides an overview for each section, helping to put various types of children's literature into perspective. Every kind of children's book is covered. "A Family of Readers" begins with an in-depth look at board books, then continues on to picture books, easy readers, chapter books, genres (humorous books, mysteries, fantasies, etc.), nonfiction, poetry and teen novels.

Some of the essays are helpfully specific, such as "What Makes a Good Sex Ed Book?" by Christine Heppermann and "What Makes a Good Mother Goose?" by Joanna Rudge Long, both children's-book experts. Other essayists muse on the allure of poetry to children or examine the idea of family in children's books. In a particularly illuminating essay, children's-book expert Kathleen Horning gives detailed instructions on how to read a picture book, using "Baby Says" by John Steptoe as her example as she eviscerates the idea that creating picture books is easy.

An illustrious list of children's-book creators enriches "A Family of Readers." For example, there's an interview with Maurice Sendak, winner of the Caldecott Medal for "Where the Wild Things Are"; an essay by Newbery Medalist Betsy Byars on adventure books; and a look at the thrill of first learning to read by Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry.

Jon Scieszka, the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, contributes his thoughts in several parts of the book, tackling three issues: children's-book design (a key to the success of his Caldecott Honor-winning "The Stinky Cheese Man"); the importance of humor to children; and his suggestions on how to better connect boys with books.

Parents will particularly appreciate suggestions for each type of book. These lists generally focus on recently published books, and each recommended volume is given a brief annotation, allowing readers to see if a book is one that might appeal to them.

At the end of "A Family of Readers," there's an extensive bibliography of several hundred titles, all classics and "must-read" books, organized loosely by age range.

"A Family of Readers"can easily be read cover to cover. But the book also is great for browsing, and it's terrific when you have a specific type of book in mind — easy readers, for example — and need more information.

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A final note: Those especially interested in children's literature should check out two other new books. One focuses on Newbery Medalist Virginia Hamilton; it's titled "Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays and Conversations" (Blue Sky/Scholastic, $29.99), and is edited by Arnold Adoff and Kacy Cook.

The other, "From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books" (Collins, $14.99), is an updated version of Kathleen Horning's classic book on children's-book reviewing.

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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