Heather Feldstein knows how to spot a good book. She looks for a story that is short, sweet, and generally intended for children under 12.
The Toronto-based mother of two is the founder of wordsbymom.com, a website devoted to reviewing children’s books.
“There are a lot of really great kids’ books out there that are highly marketed, but there are also a number of quieter gems that don’t get highlighted very well,” she says.
“We all know the classics by Shel Silverstein or the books we grew up with, but what about some of the more recent works?”
Feldstein says that parents often can’t browse in bookstores, so they end up buying bestsellers.
“When you go into bookstores, you often have one eye on your kids and you have to judge books by their covers. Or you can ask store clerks, but they usually point to books that are big sellers.”
While those books can be really valuable, Feldstein says there is also a lot of great new work that deserves exposure because it speaks to modern children.
An avid reader and a writer, Feldstein regularly attends writers’ conferences and reads several new books every week before posting reviews of her favourites.
“Because I’m entrenched in the industry, and this is my full-time job, I hope I can help others find good material.”
Feldstein hopes her site is a valuable resource for parents, grandparents and teachers. Though you can’t order books directly from wordsbymom.com, the site provides in-depth book reviews and offers suggestions for post-reading discussions.
She reviews books that have a good message, she says.
“The moral doesn’t have to be overpowering or preachy. Kids at bedtime generally want lessons delivered in a way that is fun, sweet, or funny.”
As an example, Feldstein recommends a book called Ish by Peter H. Reynolds, which is about a little boy who has a passion for drawing.
“It’s a really cute book. To children, it’s just a funny story at first, until you use it to talk to them about the beauty of encouragement, uniqueness and individuality.”
Equally important is a book’s pictures.
“The illustrations have to be engaging and bright. As you turn the page, you can see the child’s eye as they take in the drawings,” she says.
Also, a good children’s book will be authentic, she adds.
“The voice of the character has to be genuine, because kids can really pick up on what is real. Kids are raw, and that must be spoken to through literature in order for them to believe it.”
She adds that her policy is to read “everything,” but only to review books she really loves.
One of her favourite holiday books is Eric Kimmel’s The Chanukah Guest, which features a latke maker and a hungry bear.
“I think it celebrates the spirit of Chanukah and the need to invite guests into your home,” she says.
Feldstein says that being exposed to good literature can be incredibly beneficial for children.
“The positive experiences we foster when kids are young correlate to early literacy skills,” she notes.
She also says that reading to kids can be a bonding experience for families.
“With my own kids, bedtime reading seems to be when they are ready to air their grievances and want to talk about issues or what happened to them at school.
“And at the end of the day, there’s something quite magical about snuggling up with a good book,” she says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to spend some quality time with your kids.”
For Feldstein, children’s books can spark conversations about serious issues. She recommends Maxine Trottier’s Terry Fox: A Story of Hope, which can be used to talk to kids about cancer, while stressing the importance of hope and recognizing dreams.
“There are certain unfortunate realities in life that we need to talk to our kids about, but we need to expose them in child-friendly ways,” she says.
“Another great book is All the Way to America by Dan Yaccarino. It talks about heirlooms, and in our house, we were able to relate that to our own family history with the Holocaust.”
Feldstein believes children’s books can play a vital role in Holocaust education.
“As that generation dies off, we have some fabulous books that can help us keep their message alive,” she says. “It’s up to us as parents and grandparents to draw from them.”
Feldstein has written a manuscript about her grandparents who survived the Holocaust, which she hopes to someday publish.
Her other book addresses the issue of sibling rivalry.
“With two kids, I can’t imagine what inspired that,” she joked.
Feldstein notes that it has become increasingly challenging for writers to get published because of competition from e-books and other new forms of literature.
“Traditional publishing houses now only publish the cream of the crop, and the industry is much more competitive [for] a writer,” she says.
“From a consumer’s perspective though, there’s a benefit, because it means there are fewer poor quality books.”
Aside from her website, Feldstein also writes regularly for the Huffington Post.