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Choosing Children’s Books: Smart New Help for Parents
San Diego State University

In the booming business of children’s books, there’s smart new help for consumers this year with a unique partnership between the Parents’ Choice Foundation and leading literary scholars from San Diego State University.

Free online book reviews by faculty at the university’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature are being posted at www.parents-choice.org, the Web site of the nonprofit Parents’ Choice, the country’s oldest reviewer of children’s books.

With recent double-digit increases in children’s book sales fueled by blockbusters like the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket series, thousands of new kids’ book titles are being introduced each year.

“There are more good children’s books available than at any time I can remember,” says Alida Allison, a professor of English and comparative literature at SDSU and now a Parents’ Choice reviewer. “Superb writers are now doing these books.”

SDSU is one of the first universities in the country (and also the largest) to accord advanced-degree status to the academic study of children’s and adolescent literature within the university’s master’s program of the Department of English and Comparative Literature.

It was the department’s online Children’s Book Review Service that this year attracted the attention of Parents’ Choice, leading to the partnership agreement. The book review service was founded by Allison in 1998 for students and teachers.

Under the new partnership, SDSU faculty and graduate students will provide 100 reviews a year under the direction of Allison to the “What We’ve Been Reading Feature” on the Parents’ Choice site. SDSU’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, one of only a few American nominating bodies for Sweden’s prestigious Astrid Lindgren Award for children’s literature, also will provide jurors for the annual Parents’ Choice Awards.

“We look forward to working with leading experts at the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature in recommending the very best literature for young readers,” Parents’ Choice Director Claire Green said in announcing the new partnership. “By partnering with SDSU, we will create one of the largest single sources for reviews of children’s books.”

Allison’s consumer-friendly reviews are as easy to read, fun and sensible as the professor’s own book for the youngest set, “The Toddler’s Potty Book,” which has sold more than half a million copies. Her advice for parents is simple: know your own child. Book reviews and age guidelines must be tailored to fit a child’s interests and reading skills.

She’s a great fan of fantasy books. “One of the things you can do for your kids is to focus not just on how-to books, but also on books where their minds can wander.” Another suggestion is that parents not be quick to dismiss books that address controversial or even violent themes. “In a world where a kid can turn on the television and see someone being blown up in Baghdad, it can be a service to expose children to problems of the world in a way they can understand,” she says. Controversial themes “are less shocking, it seems to me, when they’re presented between the covers of a book,” Allison says. “If you’re concerned, read it. Often books that are condemned are condemned by people who have not read them.”

Among a few of her favorite new and classic books for children:
* Stories for Children by Isaac Beshevis Singer, containing 36 folk tales written by the Nobel Prize winner.
* The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban, another children’s classic.
* The Lady Grace Mysteries by Lady Grace Cavendish (nee Patricia Finney), which Allison describes as “Nancy Drew in Elizabethan times.”
* Haroun and the Sea of Stories by renowned author Salmon Rushdie.
* The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez, about growing up in a family of migrant workers in California.
* Leon’s Story by Leon Tillage, about a black child growing up in Chicago “It blows students away when they read it,” Allison says.
* The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, a fantasy-adventure by the winner of England’s Booker Prize.
* The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, about an autistic boy with exceptional math skills. “It’s brilliant,” Allison says.
* The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela by Uri Shulevitz, about travels through three continents in the year 1159.
* The Magician’s Boy by Susan Cooper, another award-winning writer of adult fiction.

Public libraries are “extraordinary resources” to find such books, says Allison, who also advises taking children along to the local bookstore.
“Taking a kid to a bookstore is an experience that is complimenting the intelligence of a child. You’re saying, we trust you,” Allison says.

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