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What Makes a Good Manners Book?

What’s the magic word? These days many children would answer, “Expelliarmus!” or some other Harry Potter-ism, but for generations before this the magic word has always been “please.” And yet anyone who works with children regularly can attest to the fact that quite a lot of them don’t seem familiar with that magic word, or its close companions “thank you” and “excuse me.” As a bookstore manager recently told me, “We get a lot of grandparents in here looking for books on manners because they think children aren’t being taught their manners anymore.” Fortunately there are some good books they can use to tackle the subject.

Emily Post was the guardian of etiquette for decades, and now her descendents Peggy Post (Emily’s great-granddaughter-in-law) and Cindy P. Senning (Peggy’s sister-in-law) cover the genteel beat, making their book Emily’s Everyday Manners a tempting choice for teachers of manners. It is filled with practical advice about everyday situations that children encounter, such as playing on a playground, attending a birthday party, or riding the school bus. The book’s characters demonstrate good manners through sample phrases they might use in specific situations. Unfortunately the whole thing backfires because the words coming out of the kids’ mouths are so very unchildlike. For instance, while washing the dishes little Emily says to little Ethan, “Thanks! My mom so appreciates the help.” At best, these kids come across like Eddie Haskell on Leave It to Beaver; at worst, their adult-sounding comments would probably elicit real-life teasing from other children.

What Do You Say, Dear?One old favorite to ease grownups and kids alike into the subject of manners is Sesyle Joslin’s classic What Do You Say, Dear?: A Book of Manners for All Occasions. The book, which adults may remember from their own childhoods, features delightfully imaginative and childlike scenarios such as this: “You are walking backwards, because sometimes you like to, and you bump into a crocodile. What do you say, dear?” A page turn reveals the answer: “Excuse me.” The accompanying illustrations by Maurice Sendak are very funny, with many of his characteristic touches (e.g., child characters wearing outsize dress-up clothes, a dog craning to lick a wedding cake). Not surprisingly, however, the book is of its time; the little girl plays at being a princess needing rescue, a bride, and other very traditional gender roles that may set off sexism alarm bells. Likewise, the firearm will probably rule it out for use in school, but the scenario makes its point perfectly: “You are a cowboy riding around the range. Suddenly Bad-Nose Bill comes up behind you with a gun. He says, ‘Would you like me to shoot a hole in your head?’ What do you say, dear? ‘No, thank you.’”

What Do You Say, Dear? works so beautifully as a manners book because it’s genuinely funny to both adults and children. It’s also participatory — the child is expected to fill in the answer before turning the page. The book doesn’t lecture children or put unrealistic-sounding words in their mouths. Rather, it gives kids practice with good-manners words so that they may, if backing into a crocodile (or a grandma) in the grocery store, spontaneously come up with the just right thing to say.

Another book an older generation might remember fondly is Munro Leaf’s Manners Can Be Fun. It begins by making the point that “good manners is really just getting along well with other people.” Updated several times since 1936 when originally published, it relies heavily on name-calling, describing children such as “BRAGGER” (“who tells you all the time how great he is”) and “SHOW-OFF” (“who is miserable if everybody isn’t paying attention to her”). The tone is very much that of an adult instructing a child — you can practically see the finger-wagging. The stick-figure illustrations are comical, but overall the book lacks the grace both in writing and illustration of Leaf’s classic Story of Ferdinand.

An entertaining book that melds old-fashioned sensibility with a modern-day twist is Diane Goode’s Mind Your Manners! The text comes from an 1802 spelling book designed to instruct children on etiquette. Still-useful tips include, “Throw not any thing under the table,” “Drink not, nor speak with any thing in thy mouth,” and “Eat not too fast, or with greedy behavior.” Rich watercolor and ink illustrations show the nineteenth-century Abbott family sitting at a long table — and breaking each of the book’s etiquette rules in turn. Goode skillfully conveys humor with a swoop of a line and a squiggle of black ink; readers who carefully pore over the pictures will be rewarded with lots of funny details. Interplay between the text’s heavy-handedness and the illustrations’ humor provides a great opportunity for discussing, with a light touch, current expectations for good manners.

Some books are fine stories on their own that also happen to cover manners. One is Cari Best’s Are You Going to Be Good?, about a little boy who tries his very hardest to be polite at his great-grandmother’s 100th birthday party. Young Robert rejoices in attending this most special occasion, looking very proud in his suit and tie, with newly polished shoes. He’s also all prepped with his manners: “In the car, they practice ‘Please.’ They practice ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Excuse me,’ too.” G. Brian Karas’s pictures hilariously convey both Robert’s ebullience (which would seem to present a challenge to all those expectations of behavior) and his sudden shyness at being faced with a roomful of tall, dressed-up adults. This isn’t a book about a perfect child but one who is trying hard, and in the end he and Great-Gran Sadie get into some welcome mischief. This book could be a wonderful way to prepare children for an important event, for it models not just child behavior but also compassionate, wise adult behavior (sometimes we need a little reminding, too).

Another picture book that is strong in its own right and happens to have some good pointers about manners is Thank You, Meiling, by Linda Talley. Little duck Meiling is behaving much in the way a spoiled human child would. Her mother reprimands her and sends her to run errands with a little boy: “You shall go with him. If you pay attention, you may learn something about courtesy. Remember, stop and think of others.” The duck takes her mission seriously, noticing each polite phrase or action as she and the boy gather items for the Moon Festival. The story is engaging, the Moon Festival traditions enticing, and the manners are clearly portrayed as being more than mere custom but rather a way of taking care of others.

Author Judy Sierra shows a particular affinity for picture books about manners. Her most recent, Suppose You Meet a Dinosaur: A First Book of Manners, depicts a little girl who goes to the grocery store and encounters a dinosaur. The pair copes with a number of etiquette questions, all posed in rhyme, as when the dinosaur wants to turn down an offer of butter brickle: “She does not want it, even slightly. / How does she let you know politely?” The question-and-answer format recalls What Do You Say, Dear? but with an updated look and tone. Tim Bowers’s illustrations portray the dinosaur with a tiny pink purse and glasses, watched by wary-looking humans as she shops. The book combines humor with instruction, as does Sierra’s Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf, in which a dapper-looking wolf heads off to a party at the library while trying to remember his instructions: “Sip your tea and never slurp, say ‘Excuse Me’ if you burp. / Smile and have a lot of fun, but don’t go biting anyone!” Fairy-tale characters populate J. Otto Seibold’s digital illustrations, and kids will enjoy finding the ones they know while they follow B.B. Wolf’s attempts at staying polite.

Since the reason for having good manners is to get along well with others, and each of Mo Willems’s books gets down to the fundamentals of the way people (and elephants, piggies, pigeons, ducklings, and others) relate to one another, it’s not surprising that he, too, has written some manners books. Time to Say “Please”! offers advice to a little girl who is eyeing a cookie jar so longingly that her eyes turn into cookies. The words of wisdom are presented by cute little mice, industriously using balloons, signs, parachutes, and other things to show the information: “Don’t just grab it! Go ask a big person and PLEASE say ‘PLEASE’!” The mice continue to list other reasons to say please, and some other useful phrases, too, all delivered with humor and practicality: “You may not get what you want. But it’s hard to say ‘no’ to ‘please.’”

Willems’s newest Pigeon book, The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? also features manners and cookies. Pigeon cannot believe that adorable little Duckling has somehow gotten hold of a cookie simply by asking for it. After Pigeon reels off the many things he himself requires, a tear drops from his eye: “But do I get what I ask for?” A double-page-spread Pigeon-tantrum ensues: “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” He is finally shamed into politeness by the duckling’s kind offer of the cookie. An adult looking for the perfect book to teach a rude child manners may prefer a protagonist without so much attitude, but children will get the point through Pigeon’s own bad behavior.

For those still on their way to Willems there are even some board books intended to teach manners to the very youngest. Manners Time, by Elizabeth Verdick, gives kids not just the words to say but the accompanying physical cues. In one example a little girl offers salad to her friend, and the text reads, “Here’s a nice way to say no: ‘No, thank you.’ (A smile helps, too.)” Changes in typeface help identify the message, with the spoken phrase printed in a different color. The illustrations by Marieka Heinlen show a diverse group of kids with a range of expressions that make meaning clear while not stooping to the cartoony or exaggerated. This book could be used with toddlers as well as with older kids who need some help with social cues, and it also includes some thoughtful tips for parents and caregivers.

Hello Genius, a new series of board books, offers bold graphic illustrations and one manners word or phrase at a time. Titles include Mouse Says “Sorry”, Hippo Says “Excuse Me”, and Bear Says “Thank You”. In Penguin Says “Please”, Penguin starts out being bratty, demanding things without saying the magic word. By the end he learns how to ask politely and is rewarded with the things he requests. It’s a simple lesson that’s useful to learn as early as possible.

There are several contemporary examples of books whose attempts to teach manners are heavy-handed and unwelcome (Whoopi’s Big Book of Manners, for instance, or the new Terrible, Awful, Horrible Manners!). The books that succeed in their mission are the ones that help children learn some of the nuances of polite behavior and are still great stories — entertaining, engaging, and authentic-sounding. One of the best manners books in recent years, combining all the elements of successful etiquette-teaching, is Jane Yolen’s hugely popular How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? The volume combines Mark Teague’s very funny illustrations showing human parents and their dinosaur children with Yolen’s impeccable rhymes. Children get enough distance from the moral that they can be caught by surprise when they recognize their own naughty actions; as a little girl in my story time once exclaimed, “Hey! Sometimes I do that!” They get the message; and because it is delivered with sly wit that is funny to both the child and the adult reader, it is a treat for all. And for that, we should all say, “Thank you!”

Good Manners Books

Are You Going to Be Good? (Farrar, 2005) by Cari Best; illus. by G. Brian Karas

Bear Says “Thank You” (Picture Window, 2012) by Michael Dahl; illus. by Oriol Vidal

Hippo Says “Excuse Me” (Picture Window, 2012) by Michael Dahl; illus. by Oriol Vidal

Mouse Says “Sorry” (Picture Window, 2012) by Michael Dahl; illus. by Oriol Vidal

Penguin Says “Please” (Picture Window, 2012) by Michael Dahl; illus. by Oriol Vidal

Mind Your Manners! (Farrar, 2005) by Diane Goode

What Do You Say, Dear?: A Book of Manners for All Occasions (Addison-Wesley, 1958) by Sesyle Joslin; illus. by Maurice Sendak

Manners Can Be Fun (Lippincott, 1936; Universe, 2004) by Munro Leaf

Emily’s Everyday Manners (Collins/HarperCollins, 2006) by Peggy Post and Cindy Post Senning; illus. by Steve Björkman

Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf (Knopf, 2007) by Judy Sierra; illus. by J. Otto Seibold

Suppose You Meet a Dinosaur: A First Book of Manners (Knopf, 2012) by Judy Sierra; illus. by Tim Bowers

Thank You, Meiling (MarshMedia, 1999) by Linda Talley; illus. by Itoko Maeno

Manners Time (Free Spirit, 2009) by Elizabeth Verdick; illus. by Marieka Heinlen

The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? (Hyperion, 2012) by Mo Willems

Time to Say “Please”! (Hyperion, 2005) by Mo Willems

How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? (Blue Sky/Scholastic, 2000) by Jane Yolen; illus. by Mark Teague

From the September/October 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Susan Dove Lempke About Susan Dove Lempke

Susan Dove Lempke is a Horn Book reviewer and director of the Niles Public Library District in Illinois.



  1. Alexandra Hine says:

    What Do You Say, Dear? is my favourite children’s books so I was very pleased to see you mention it in your artcile. It’s a book I continually give – along with it’s companion book, What Do You Do, Dear – to my friends with young children and it is always a huge hit. The children absolutely love it and wear out the copies. No wonder the books have been in print for over fifty years. They’re timeless classics. They’re currently published by HarperCollins.

    Alexandra Hine

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