Magic words

Olivia loves books. Our tastes don't always coincide but there are several family favourites in her growing collection. We like Charlie and Lola. We're happy to read One Fish, Two Fish many times over, which is just as well. 

My reintroduction to the world of children's books after a thirty-year gap has been instructive. Some books are enduring, like Dr Seuss and other mid-century classics: Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, where the monkeys all have wild 60s sideburns, and the very sweet Are you my mother?, published in 1960, which I remember from my 80s childhood. I remember Each Peach Pear Plum, and still delight in its lovely woodland feel. Some newer books are already classics, like Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo. Not all her books are that good, but this and a few others are cleverly plotted and charmingly rhymed, and Axel Scheffler's illustrations conjure a vivid and inviting world. I also love Sarah Garland's books, with titles like Going Swimming and Doing the Washing. These are rich vignettes of ordinary life, in which the illustrations beautifully embody the quality of life the simple stories evoke: bright, fluid and warm, imperfect but deeply nourishing. The unnamed mother in these books is a role model for me.

I've also seen beautifully illustrated and touching stories that leave the toddler unmoved. They're clearly aimed at sentimental parents, not imaginative two-year-olds. Other failures come from successful authors who turn out sequels that don't measure up. At the library the other day I discovered several sequels to a book I remember fondly: There's a Hippopotamus on my roof eating cake - none of which are really justified. As a plot device, there are only so many things to which a hippopotamus on the roof eating cake can reasonably lend itself.

More troubling to me is that so many books still reflect a world where everybody's white and protagonists, especially animals, are male by default. Almost worse than this, though, are the opposite books, where diversity is the subject, not the fabric. 'Look, brown babies are just as good! Kids with glasses can have almost as much fun!' These books only reinforce the hierarchies they're trying to overturn. They're morals without stories.

Still more disturbing, though, are the children's books - and there are many of them - that are just badly written. Stories that go nowhere, storytelling that's clumsy, prose that's loose and bland, and, unforgiveably, verse that doesn't scan. Why should little children be subjected to bad writing? Why should these tender minds - so receptive, so retentive - be offered anything less than well-conceived stories told in elegant prose or flawless verse?

If the worst books comine bad writing with storyless morality, the best books bring together the magic of the imagination with the magic of words. They show little minds what words, as well as pictures, are capable of, giving them a taste of how delicious language can be. That's why, I think, Dr Seuss has endured the way he has. Even at 60 or 70 years old, his words still dazzle and tickle. They cast an unfailing spell.