I admit it: I just love it when I visit a website like Amazon or Netflix and up pops a window with special recommendations, “just for you.” I know I should probably be a little creeped out or offended that they’re keeping tabs on me, but honestly, I’m just tickled by it. I won’t say their algorithms are always accurate (I usually get a flood of particularly random “recommendations” right after buying gifts during the holidays), but occasionally I’ll discover something new and genuinely interesting. Perhaps even more fascinating than the recommendations themselves is the science that goes into them. What exactly is it about my interest in Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” that makes me more likely to enjoy “Upstairs, Downstairs”?
I sometimes find myself creating my own informal version of these “recommended for you” algorithms when I talk about books with children. If you ask a child wandering aimlessly through the library what kind of book you can help them find, the answer will typically be “you know … a … good book.” It’s more fruitful to start by narrowing down genres. A picture book? Nonfiction? Fiction? Do they want a book with talking animals? A realistic fiction book? How about a fantasy book? But even with all those categories, the final key is often something like a Netflix-style rating: “Tell me about a book you just loved. Maybe we can find something like it.” Or, if you want to be more focused in your questioning: “When you say you want a funny book, do you mean funny like Judy Moody or funny like Captain Underpants?” With the right keystone book, you can often find a recommendation that shares just enough qualities to hook in a reader. (“You know, if you’re looking for something really silly and a little gross, with funny pictures like Captain Underpants, how about …”)
Mind you, marketers try this kind of thing all the time with children’s books, but often with varying degrees of accuracy. After the blockbuster success of A Series of Unfortunate Events there was a sudden flood of novels with dark, depressing stories about orphans with an Edward Gorey style cover. In order for that kind of marketing to work, however, the connections between the old and new have to be more than skin-deep.
We can help children to make some of these connections themselves by starting to recognize ideas about genre, or pick up on elements of an author’s style that pulls them back again and again to that author. Still, it never hurts to have a few “connected texts” in our back pockets as adults, ready to offer to wandering readers when needed. As an adult, one of the great pleasures of continuing to explore new children’s books is finding ways that new texts connect back to a story from my childhood, or ways that a fan of a more recent novel can be led back through it to an older book.
Over the next few posts, I’ll be offering up some of my own “If you like … then you’ll love …” pairings. Coming up next week will be a true old favorite and a book I consider a new classic: I believe that fans of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne will just love Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins. While you’re waiting to hear my pitch for this great combination, feel free to share your own “If you like … then you’ll love …” pairs in the comments section. Happy reading!