Heads Full of Seuss, Dahl, Stine: Classics, New Books Keep Kids Flipping Pages Not Channels

By Butters, Pat; Rita, Michael Santa | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 11, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Heads Full of Seuss, Dahl, Stine: Classics, New Books Keep Kids Flipping Pages Not Channels


Butters, Pat, Rita, Michael Santa, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


A fairy tale runs through your head, with a disturbingly familiar beginning:

"Once upon a time, in a far-away place, parents sat by their children's beds, softly reading to them as they fell into peaceful slumbers and dreamed happy dreams.

"Then those children grew up - they became nasty adults, inventing TV sets, listening to loud stereos! They said there was no magic left in the world, the bad guys win, and the prince didn't marry the princess! (Or if he did, they'd split 15 years later!)"

OK, like all fairy tales, this really isn't really true. In fact, according to Jewel Stoddard, who has worked at the Cheshire Cat Children's Bookstore on Connecticut Avenue NW since it opened 18 1/2 years ago, this is the best of times for children's books.

"The volume of children's books out there has increased tremendously over the past 18 years," she says. "Children's books have a longer history now, and so there is a far greater selection of books to choose from than when today's parents were growing up."

The recent growth in the volume of books has been accompanied by an expanded eclecticism in children's literature. Everything from old-fashioned fairy tales to horror stories to sex-education, history and biography is being read by today's young ones.

Children's bookstores find themselves in the fortunate position of having an active and interested young clientele.

"Books let them use all of their skills," says Sheila Egan, manager of A Likely Story in Old Town Alexandria. "Good readers make good listeners who make good writers."

The success of R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" and "Fear Street" series is proof positive that children themselves have eagerly taken to the pleasures of reading.

Burrowing eagerly into Mr. Stine's youth-savvy horror series with the avarice of hardened Stephen King fans, these young readers collectively have spent $80 million on Mr. Stine's books since the tales first hit the shelves in 1989. Last fall they pushed his 96th best seller "The Headless Ghost" to the No. 1 position on the best-seller charts, outdistancing even such heavy hitters as Michael Crichton and retired Gen. Colin Powell.

According to Ms. Stoddard, publishers also have become increasingly interested in the reading habits of children.

"Ever since the enormous success of the `Goosebumps' series," Ms. Stoddard says, "various competing publishing houses have come out with horror series of their own and are constantly on the lookout for new fads."

They haven't found one yet, but the word inside the Cheshire Cat is that nonfiction is a safe bet for the children's writers of tomorrow. American history in particular is fast becoming a favorite of school-age children.

" `The History of US' by Joy Hackim is a big seller. There are 10 volumes in the series, and we have kids who come in and buy a new volume each time they get their allowance." Ms. Stoddard says. "Joy Hackim's books intersperse popular culture with the Big Facts, so they're more interesting and accessible to kids."

Meanwhile, Alina Gowlik, who for five years has run the Aladdin's Lamp children's bookstore in Falls Church, is less concerned with what's popular than with providing diversity.

"I'm an educator, not a believer in best sellers," says Ms. Gowlik, who was in charge of the Falls Church Public Library's children's division for 10 years. She says customers of children's bookstores are different; usually they were frequent visitors at the local library and participated in its programs.

"A lot of these people have no TV at the house," Ms. Gowlik says. "It's like a subculture. The TV isn't an important part of their life."

While she agrees that children's books today involve a wider selection, she says they're also more sophisticated and have improved in the quality of artwork. "Children's books have some of the best illustrators in the field," Ms.

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