You oughta be in picture books

Jul 13th 2006

Surfing through some lists of recommended picture books for kids, I noticed a theme developing. Here are three unrelated books with one big thing in common:

The Best Present
Camper of the Week
Moonbeam on a Cat's Ear

A hint: they share that common element with books called Rosie's Walk, The Sign on Rosie's Door, Rosie and the Rustlers, and Rosie and the Poor Rabbits. And they're all just a small sampling of the dozens of picture books starring Rosies. On the boy's side, the name Max has proven equally irresistable to authors. But good luck finding a Brandon or Melissa -- those names are far more common in real life, but rare birds in the bookstore.

To take a rough measure of picture-book name popularity, I ran names through Amazon's title search engine restricting the search to books for ages 4-8. (I also eliminated books where the name belonged to the author rather than a character.) Here's a lineup of names that are heard disproportionately in picture-book land compared to the real world:

DISPROPORTIONATELY COMMON
Ben
Charlie
Jack
Katie
Max
Molly
Rosie
Sam
Sophie
Tom

DISPROPORTIONATELY UNCOMMON
Brandon
Courtney
Danielle
Kevin
Kristen
Kyle
Melissa
Nicole
Ryan
Sean

For a sense of scale, Jack, Molly and Sam combine to populate 604 titles. Brandon, Kristen and Sean combine to zero.

The uncommon names are a more contemporary group, but just being old-fashioned won't get you into picture books. (Names like Howard and Pauline were far more common than Max at its peak.) To earn the love of broad swaths of children's authors a name has to be simple, familiar, timeless, and informal -- preferably a nickname.

Any of this ring a bell? If you read the recent blog entries on likeability, you'll recognize this formula as the surest recipe for a friendly, likeable name. So while parents may not focus on friendliness in a name, children's authors clearly do. They're crafting characters to be fun and approachable, to draw young readers into an imaginary world that's suspended in time and space, and typically a shade cuddlier than reality. Extending a metaphor from the likeability discussion, in picture-book land life is an ongoing picnic and the names are chosen to match.

When more contemporary, formal names do pop up in titles, it's often an "issue" book. These are the books designed to help kids understand a practical challenge they or their friends might be facing. Books like Brianna Breathes Easy: A Story About Asthma take place not in picture-book land but firmly in real life, so the warm-and-fuzzy naming rules can give way to realism.

This all feels perfectly natural to me. Teddy bears ought to be named Molly and Ben, not McKenzie and Brayden. But I'm a grownup. I'm curious whether kids really do feel more comfortable with the names authors pick out to be cozy, or whether the adult buyers of the book are the true audience. It's perfectly possible that preschoolers do respond to the coziness of nicknames, which can resemble terms of endearment. At the same time, young kids generally accept all manner of names easily and are likely to have McKenzies and Braydens in their own social circles. So perhaps a title like "Brayden's Breakfast" would go over big.

Besides, my four-year-old just named her imaginary princess Delicatessa. As in Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim's Daughter Longstocking.

Comments

1
By Kristen V. (not verified)
July 13, 2006 1:45 PM

I've noticed that in grown-up books, the name "Kate" is overused for female protagonists--to the point of being comical.

2
By JN (not verified)
July 13, 2006 5:39 PM

I notice that a few of the disproportionately common names in picture books also happen to be disproportionately common names for pets in the US. The names in this category that stood out to me were Max and Molly. Interesting... I have avoided these names as I name my own child simply because I wouldn't want my kid to grow up hearing, "Oh, you share the same name as my dog!"

3
By Linda (not verified)
July 13, 2006 6:20 PM

I've also noticed that many nursery rhymes feature a Jack (or Tom), and they have been around for ages. I completely agree with Kristen's post. Kate and Jack are everywhere...in books, tv and movies. They are also often paired in the same story. Perhaps it is their symbolism for "everyman" or "everywoman", yet they still manage to convey a sense of strength and individality to me.

4
By Heather (not verified)
July 13, 2006 6:57 PM

Pippi was (and is, I suppose) my ultimate childhood hero. Your daughter has excellent taste. I suppose "Pippilotta" is a bit much for a modern girl, though. Maybe Phillipa...

5
By Christiana (not verified)
July 13, 2006 7:26 PM

Kate is short, simple, easy to say and nearly impossible to mispronounce, it also sounds less cheesy than Sally, so it's not surprising that it is used frequently in children's books, or even more adult books. How many times have you picked up a book where the main character is hard to pronounce? How many books did it take for Americans to properly pronounce Hermione in the Harry potter series (I can tell you I personally said it wrong until the third book when it was sounded out phonetically in the story) I said it "Hermy-own" which now sounds ridiculous, but I'd never heard it before - how was I to know? I'd rather have a Kate any day.

6
By Elizabeth (not verified)
July 14, 2006 2:54 PM

I agree with you that children accept all manner of names. If I were to tell my daughter that a new neighbor's name were "Radiator," she wouldn't bat an eye. I asked her yesterday if she liked some names more than others, and she looked at me with a confused expression (she's four). Name prejudice must set in later, after children hear enough names to develop a sense of what's common and what's not common.

I've always thought that Rosemary Wells had her finger on the naming pulse. With characters like Max, Ruby, and Felix (in books written in the late 80s and on), she was a trend-setter! I'm hoping that Kevin Henkes is not far behind. I rather like Chester and Winston, and he's already hit pay dirt with Lilly.

7
By Jess (not verified)
July 14, 2006 4:09 PM

I agree with Elizabeth children have no name prejudice at all my sons rabbit is named cookie jar!
the names are there for the parents enjoyment and maybe to teach children an appreciation for a likeable name.
I think the books breathe new life into these names and in a couple of years these may be the common names around town.
I know I desperately wanted to name my new son Harry mainly because of how sweet and likeble harry potter is

8
By Christiana (not verified)
July 14, 2006 4:29 PM

It's interesting to hear that tidbit on children not having name predjudices - I remember a girl in my kindergarten class who was very strange named Kimberly - it's been years since I could associate Kimberly with someone not "weird." However, there was also a girl named Aisha (which is fairly old-school Arabian and Greek, but not terribly common around here) and I thought nothing of it.

9
By Lamenda (not verified)
July 14, 2006 9:03 PM

Christiana:

I've never read the Harry Potter books, but would be interested in the correct pronunciation for Hermione, since I would pronounce it "Hermy-own" as well.

10
By Camilla (not verified)
July 14, 2006 11:55 PM

The correct pronunciation of Hermione is something like Her-my-oh-nee.

11
By Jessica (not verified)
July 15, 2006 12:15 AM

My great aunt was named Hermione and pronounced it "Hermy-own", although she always went by Hermie. Her mother had thought it was a beautiful name but had only seen it in print, and didn't know how it was pronounced!

12
By Kathy (not verified)
July 15, 2006 12:22 AM

As an elementary substitute teacher, each day teaching a different grade and class, I have long been fascinated by the trends in children's names. Another interesting thing is what names turn up in math books (story problems). Growing up I never heard that "Kathy" did anything (except insure that I was always relegated to being Kathy M.). But now names in story problems are often multicultural and/or unusual. Once kids get to middle school (algebra) though, the story problems are apt to be peopled with x, y and z!

13
By wendy (not verified)
July 15, 2006 3:02 PM

my 4 year olds favorite names at the moment:

Sally (from Cars)
Lightening (also from Cars)
Tumblelina
Sasha
Gabriella
Star Girl (which she insists will be the name of our next child, but I can call her Star)

I asked her what names she DOESN'T like. She said she likes ALL names except for Monster.

14
By Angela (not verified)
July 16, 2006 1:46 PM

So funny about Kate and Jack being everywhere in adult literature - I totally noticed that a few years ago and laugh every time I start a new novel and am introduced to "Kate." I think authors of children's books choose short, simple, and easy to read and pronounce names for their characters. As we have seen, these names also happen to be on the "likability" list.

15
By Marjorie (not verified)
July 16, 2006 10:16 PM

Quoting..... "I have avoided these names as I name my own child simply because I wouldn't want my kid to grow up hearing, "Oh, you share the same name as my dog!"

Posted by JN on July 13 at 02:39pm"
-----------------------------------
Couldn't resist posting a reply to this comment (second from the top). I have 12 grandnieces and grandnephews all in their 20s. One branch, regrettably now somewhat estranged due to broken famiies and distance, chose less common boys' names of the time - Kye Kelsey and Jesse (pronounced Jessie). Unknowingly, other families named their dogs Kelsey, a female Shepherd, and Jess, a male Golden Retriever.

Both dogs are now gone; I don't think the families in question were ever fully conscious of the fact, and now there is no point discussing it. Just thought it was a curious bit of synchronicity!

Oh, and by the way, my first grandson, now almost 8 months, is named "Maximus", but of course known as Max! Good to know there are books that he can identify with!

Marjorie

16
By Elizabeth (not verified)
July 16, 2006 11:35 PM

I must amend my earlier comment about name prejudice. As I was putting my four-year-old's pajamas on tonight she suddenly said, "Peek a boo!" and then, "Is there anyone named Peekaboo?" So I said, "Actually, yes, there is. Her name is Picabo Street." My daughter burst out laughing and said, "That's a silly name!" Then she looked pensive and said, "But with that name, does she have a face?"

Ha! Out of the mouths of the babes...

17
By Jen (not verified)
July 17, 2006 12:54 PM

Wow, this so interesting. Part of my degree is in Children's Literature so this is really interesting to me.

Jack is a particularly interesting name in relating to this topic. In the UK (where I'm from)there are tons of folk and traditional tales with a Jack - Jack and the Beanstalk, Daft Jack, Lazy Jack, as well as many more modern stories with a centeral charcter called Jack...then we have the phrase Jack the Lad (meaning a bit of a ladies man), Jack O Lantern, our flag is of course called the Union Jack.

Interestingly, the name Jack has topped the name charts here for boys for about 7 or 8 years.

PS - it wasn't just Americans who didn't know how to pronounce Hermione. Nobody in the UK did either!

18
By Jen (not verified)
July 17, 2006 12:59 PM

I think Laura's right about names being chosen by adults thinking children will like them, rather thn being what children actaully like. As a teacher, I have never found that any children actually like the Beatrix Potter books (Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggywinkle, et al) but adults love them and always buy them for children. Like wise, the traditional AA Milne - Winnie the Pooh books.

19
By Christiana (not verified)
July 17, 2006 5:24 PM

Jen - Oh I loved the beatrix Potter characters as a child! Jemima Puddleduck! Flopsy and Mopsy! I don't think I chose to name my dolls those names or anything, but I liked saying them (like the author my mother found at the library and has since been one of those inside jokes that sends us into giggles - Brinton Turkle.) It makes you smile.

20
By Tila (not verified)
July 19, 2006 3:24 PM

I liked the Beatrix Potter books as a child too (I'm only 21 now).

This is my first time commenting but I have been fascinated by this blog and the name voyager for a long time. As someone with an unusual name (Tila, pronounced tee-la) names are somewhat of an obsession with me!

To the people worried about their children sharing a name with a dog...people seem to like naming their pets AFTER me. There are currently two dogs and three cats out there named Tila, and no humans, at least none that I have ever met, although they must exist somewhere!

21
By Valerie (not verified)
July 19, 2006 4:10 PM

Just to add to what Jen said about the name Jack in the UK, it had various meanings:
jack (n.) Look up jack at Dictionary.com
1391, jakke "a mechanical device," from the name Jack. Used by 14c. for "any common fellow" (1362), and thereafter extended to various appliances replacing servants (1572). Used generically of men (jack-of-all-trades, 1618), male animals (1623, see jackass, jackdaw, etc.), and male personifications (1522, e.g. Jack Frost). The jack in a pack of playing cards (1674) is in Ger. Bauer "peasant." Jackhammer is from 1930. Jack shit "nothing at all" is 1970s southern U.S. student slang. The jack of Union Jack is a nautical term for a small flag at the bow of a ship (1633).

I got interested in this because my brother is a steeplejack (a term which seems unknown in the US)- i.e. a man who climbs steeples and other tall buildings to work on them. The 'jack ' here seems to mean a man, as in also lumberjack. And I think this is linked to a 'jack of all trades'.

22
By Sarah A. (not verified)
July 19, 2006 4:36 PM

Tila,

I know someone with a name pronounced just like yours. She is a 50-something year old friend of my mom who lives in Oklahoma named Teela. I have always thought it was a pretty name and it has the added benefit of association with a very kind lady!

23
By Christiana (not verified)
July 19, 2006 5:17 PM

Valerie - I guess that explains why there are so many Jacks in the literary world - if Jack is "every common fellow" then it explains why it's such a common name, expecially in childrens books or the like.

I just want to say that I love this site and the work Laura has done - I love studying the sociology of names instead of just the meanings, etc as I've always done in the past. It's also great to hear the opinions of others from all over providing a new perspective of the sound/popularity/sociology of various names. Keep up the good work!

24
By Helen (not verified)
July 19, 2006 5:35 PM

There's also "jack Morman"--a lapsed Morman. A common term in Utah.

25
By Valerie (not verified)
July 19, 2006 6:14 PM

Thanks, Christiana and Helen!
Just to add to what I said earlier about Jack, there are other words which come from given names:
Joe- coffee
Moll-prostitute
Bob- shilling
John-toilet
Doll- female pet or mistress, later toy baby
Tom and Dick also meant - any common man
Dick and John Thomas- well, I think you might know these!
Could be an interesting blog entry, Laura?

26
By Amanda (not verified)
July 19, 2006 10:00 PM

After surfing through NameVoyager for a little bit, an interesting name to note is Delilah. Check it out for yourself :)

27
By Jen (not verified)
July 20, 2006 10:12 AM

Oh, OK. I stand corrected about the Batrix Potter books!

Interesting, the other stuff about Jack. (Jack of all trades, the Jack in a pack of cards, Jack Frost, etc) I knew there were more examples, but I couldn't think of them!

I think Valerie is right, it's the 'everyman' factor that makes Jack a popular name for stories - and for little English boys!

28
By Jen (not verified)
July 20, 2006 10:20 AM

Oooh, I've just thought! Jack the Ripper (name given to an infamous serial killer in the 1880s in England who was never found) Why Jack? Why not Tom the Ripper? Is it the 'every man' thing again? By calling him Jack was the point being made that it could have been any man?

29
By Dana (not verified)
July 20, 2006 3:42 PM

These names are also 1 sylable and easy to sound out for new readers.

30
By Julia (not verified)
July 20, 2006 4:47 PM

Jen, I think Jack the Ripper got his name because of an anonymous letter sent to the London police around the time of the killings--the author took responsibility for the murders and referred to himself as "Jacky the Ripper." (Of course, no one knows if this was actually from him or not.)

31
By Jen (not verified)
July 20, 2006 7:54 PM

You know after I posted that, I looked on a website about the case as i kinew so little about it and I wished I hadn't - it was really disturbing!

32
By Julia (not verified)
July 21, 2006 3:19 AM

Yeah, it's absolutely horrific--even in the context of modern serial murder cases. But one interesting thing that I noticed (because I feel obliged to say something about names as long as I'm here) is that none of the victims seemed to go by one set name. I mean, they were all poor women in the East End of London who had moved around a lot in their lifetimes, and even though they have "official" names that they're still known by, during their lifetimes they were all known by different names (sometimes totally random, not just nicknames) depending on where they were living or who they were associating with at the time. It's an interesting example of the ability of a name (or its absence) to cast a light on social status--these women were so loosely tied to society--their identity was so fluid--that their names changed constantly. It wasn't until their murders that they were "adopted" by respectable society, and in turn got official and permanent names.

33
By Julia (not verified)
July 21, 2006 3:23 AM

I just realized the above comment makes me sound a little creepy, like I know way too much about Jack the Ripper, but actually, I just happened to surf onto a website about famous murders made by some true crime enthusiasts. Which, in turn, happened because I share the name of another famous murder victim, so when I googled myself I came upon this site. Very gruesome.

34
By Jen (not verified)
July 21, 2006 7:26 AM

That is interesting about the different names they were known by. It doesn't make you sound creepy at all. As gruesome as the case is, it is also a real insight into society at the time and especially how the truly poor lived.

Maybe Laura could do a blog entry on people being known by different names in different circumstances or something!

35
By Jennie (not verified)
July 23, 2006 12:02 AM

I'm surprised to hear that Rosie is such a common name in books. Very interesting. I remember a British TV show (maybe also a book series?) called 'Rosie & Jim'.

Our daughter is named Rose & a couple of people have called her Rosie. We don't much like the nickname though - it makes us think of Rosie O'Donnel. My husband prefers the nickname Rosencrantz. :P

36
By Sophie (not verified)
July 25, 2006 4:04 PM

I'm a Sophie.
Roald Dahl dedicated a lot of his books to his granddaughter Sophie (now the famous model) I used to love it, thinking he'd written them for me!
I know a lot of cats a dogs called Sophie, my brother is max.. obviously a dog name!
The names there are very middle class names- just an observation.

37
By Dana (not verified)
July 26, 2006 6:38 PM

What constitutes a "middle class" name? I think they're all pretty class-free.

38
By Cathie (not verified)
July 26, 2006 7:32 PM

Laura, maybe I've missed it but is there a way to see naming patterns by income? Where I live, I'd agree with Sophie - those are all names I'd associate with kids of well-off parents. To me right now a "middle class" name would be a classic name, as opposed to one with kreative spelling, an ethnicity not related to the parents, or a "new" trendy name. Some of it I guess is geographic but isn't some of it also class-based? Or is that just perception? I just can't imagine someone from the fancy areas of our town calling their child Brandon or Michaela or Nevaeh or something like that.

39
By Medbh (not verified)
August 9, 2006 2:45 PM

To the poster whose grandma was actually named the mispronounciation of Hermione, a very old relative of mine (died five years ago at 94) new a boy as a child who was called "Gooey" (as in, sticky). His mother had read a novel with a man named Guy in it and thought it was a lovely sounding name!

As for mispronounced names, as you can imagine, I've heard them all...

40
By Kristin (not verified)
August 18, 2006 3:14 PM

>>>It's interesting to hear that tidbit on children not having name predjudices - I remember a girl in my kindergarten class who was very strange named Kimberly - it's been years since I could associate Kimberly with someone not "weird." >>>

I remember in my kindergarten class there was a girl with the last name Marshall. We hadn't heard it before so thought it was the weirdest thing ever! We called her Marshmallow.

41
By Kathee (not verified)
September 25, 2006 12:03 AM

Er...I don't think there's a big mystery here...anyone notice that all the "disproportionately common" names are short names that conform to most of the English phonics rules, and the "uncommon" names are longer and don't conform to phonics rules...

42
By Tila (not verified)
December 31, 2006 10:27 PM

We have one female dog in the family named "Tila" and the puppies to it were named dog names too, like "chase" etc.

43
By Danielle (not verified)
November 20, 2007 1:10 AM

I happen to know a lot more people with names on the uncommon list then people with names on the common list. I can't believe that Ryan is on the uncommon list, because I happen to know at least 5 Ryans.

44
December 1, 2013 2:30 AM

Cathie - Where do you live because I know a lot of guys named Brandon in my "fancy area of town".  The main thing I noticed from looking at the more common names for children's book characters is that they're mostly nicknames.  Some examples - Ben (not Benjamin), Sam (not Samuel), Katie (not Katherine).