Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978
More Articles Browse All Articles >>

You are in:  Reading | Have You Hugged an Ugly Book Today?

Have You Hugged an Ugly Book Today?

By Teresa DiFalco

Hundreds of great books come out each year, and not that long ago — when our houses had equity and incomes felt secure — it used to be nothing to run out and buy them. But suddenly we're in grimmer times and habits change because of it. Support local booksellers, yes, but it's also a great time to visit your library.

Our school librarian promotes different themes throughout the year to keep kids engaged in reading and one of the most popular of them is Ugly Book Week. Ugly books are the frayed and faded ones and are at least 30 years old. Their themes feel dated, the children in their pictures wear funny clothes and like those wonderful misfit toys from the famous Christmas special, they often get overlooked. So what are the benefits of ugly books?

Here are three:

  1. Older "ugly"books expose children to different writing styles, colloquialisms, and different ways to use language.
  2. They're written in different times so are a great way to sneak in history.
  3. There are often habits and customs in these books that children are unfamiliar with, so they're a great way to spark conversation.

In short, they are buried treasures. Below are some ugly books I found in my children's school library. I haphazardly pulled two from the shelf and two were recommendations from the librarian — all four were a delight to read.

The MoffatsThe Moffats
Ages: 9 to 12
By Eleanor Estes, Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin
Original Publisher: Harcourt and Brace, 1947.
(also recently republished by Sandpiper Books, 2001)

This is the first in a series of four books Eleanor Estes wrote about an American working-class family in Connecticut, circa World War I. Another book in that series — The Middle Moffat — won a Newberry Honor as did another Estes' book, "The Hundred Dresses."

Mrs. Moffat is a widow raising four children in hard times, but while they have little in material wealth, the Moffats seem quite rich. Their family is strong, and there's no shortage of adventure. Stories not only whisk us away to sometimes safer more fantastical worlds, they can also help explain uncertainties about the one we live in and the beauty of the Moffats is that while there's an undercurrent of hardship, Estes imbues her characters with a determination and faith that leaves you no doubt they'll be fine wherever they land.

Mama's Bank AccountMama's Bank Account
Ages: 9 to 12
By Kathryn Forbes
Original Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Company; 1943
(Reprinted in 1968 by Harvest Books)

Kathryn Forbes' fictional memoir was the inspiration for "I Remember Mama" the long-running 50s television series, as well as a play, movie and Broadway musical. (The film version can be found on both Netflix and Blockbuster's online rental sites.)

The story is of a 1920s Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco. Each chapter is a separate vignette from a time that spans almost 20 years and touches on historical periods like The Great Depression and war. It's a very real examination of immigrant life — the cultural and language challenges, the resourcefulness and fortitude in making ends meet — and it reinforces themes of family and faith.

The Happy OrphelineThe Happy Orpheline
Ages: 9 to 12
By Nancy Savage Carlson, Illustrated by Garth Williams
Original Publisher: Harper & Row, 1957

This story immediately calls to mind Ludwig Bemelman's delightful Madeline books. Like Bemelman's Madeline, the protagonist of The Happy Orpheline is a precocious but charming girl who lives in an orphanage with 19 others under the stern but loving care of Madame Flattot. Garth Williams' illustrations are full of life and detail and you might recognize them from his work in Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web and The Cricket in Times Square.

Tell Me WhyTell Me Why
Ages: 6 to 14
By Arkady Leokum
Original Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap, 1965
(Reprinted in 1989 by Marboro Books Corp.)

Arkady Leokum's "Tell Me Why" series was a bookshelf mainstay for an entire generation. Organized into sections such as "How We Began" and "The World Around Us," Leokum addresses questions like: What makes a jumping bean jump? What causes warts? Why do people have different colored skin?

The answers to hundreds of such questions are presented in thorough but digestible one-page bites in this book and four successors.


Libraries are full of ugly books; they need checked out to good homes. Watch for period details as you read them — things like references to current events, how much things cost, and etiquette. Remember, like the duckling in Hans Christian Anderson's iconic tale, there's a swan to be found in ugly books, even if it's just in the journey.


About the Author
Teresa DiFalco is a mother and freelance writer in Oregon. She is currently finishing her first novel, The Futile Pursuit of Happiness.


Share This

Teaching Kids to Enjoy Reading

Award-Winning Books

Article Archive

Sign Up
Our news & features delivered to your inbox.