You oughta be in picture books
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:
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.