Stupid is as Stupid Does.

I’ve always loved books, so when I had children, of course I planned to read to them.  I had a whole list of titles I’d read as a child and enjoyed, and I looked forward to sharing them with the next generation.  A trip to the local library also revealed that in the many years since I had read young children’s books–or had them read to me–there had been literally thousands of new books written for children.  I (and my children) were spoilt for choice!

 

However, I soon discovered that just because there were a lot of books for children, that didn’t mean that they were all good.  In fact, I was dismayed at just how many really rubbish children’s books there were.  They were dull, they had no storyline, they didn’t rhyme (when it was apparent that they were supposed to).  They were absolutely, astonishingly, bad literature.

Now, if I had picked up any of these books before I’d had children, I doubt I would have been anywhere near as disappointed in what they had to offer.  That’s because before I had children, I didn’t consider what sort of story was a good children’s story.  I mean, I knew a little about children, and I had been a child myself, but it’s hard to look back at your childhood without taking into account all the experiences you’ve had since then.  I didn’t remember my thought processes from when I was very young.  And from my conversations with children (before I had much contact with them), I just assumed that they would settle for any old story.

 

Looking back on that attitude, I’m surprised at myself, because I do remember the books I loved, and they were great books.  Once I’d come across a few very poor examples of literature while looking for books for my children, I went back to those I’d enjoyed as a small child.  I wanted to know what it was that had made them memorable.  From The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are, to The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Benjamin and Tulip, what was it about those books, which I could recall so well, even decades later?

 

Part of it was the pleasant memories associated with reading the stories.  It was listening to my mother as she read aloud to me, or remembering a passage in a book which became something of an in-joke between those who had read it.  But the other very important part–the most important part, in fact–was the story itself. Anticipation!  Intrigue!  Drama!  Excitement!  These stories had it all.

 

It’s easy to think those things don’t matter, because it’s a children’s book.  It’s even easy to dismiss the kinds of intrigue or excitement which exists in these stories, because they’re so short, and because it’s so simple or seemingly insignificant compared to the convoluted plots in the books we read as adults.  But to a child, it is hilarious and ridiculous that a caterpillar could eat so much (and how we can all identify with having a tummy ache after overindulging!)  It is exciting and intriguing to imagine a forest growing inside one’s bedroom.  It is fascinating to imagine just what would happen if a tiger ate all the food in the house, or whether Tulip will once again get Benjamin into trouble.

 

The problem is, it’s easy to interpret their amazement at these basic plot twists as a lack of appreciation for story.  And that is where the awful children’s books go so terribly wrong.  They think, that because children like simple stories, that because children’s vocabularies are small and they have a limited experience of the world, that it’s not necessary to bother with the effort you would put into a book for adults. The perception is that adults are complex creatures and therefore, the stories must also be complex, and there must be conflict, climax and resolution.  Children, on the other hand, are less complex–after all, they speak in simpler sentences and interpret the world in simpler ways.  So their stories must be simpler, right?  So simple, that they don’t require conflict or resolution.  So simple, that they can be a collection of words on a colourful page, and it will be enough.

 

It is not enough.

 

Humans of every age understand a lot more than just words on the page.  They pick up nuances, they interpret symbols.  Children, especially, have a love for language.  They feel the rhythm, they embrace rhyme, they delight in the music of speech.  It’s assumed that we can just print any old story, and children will read it, and that’s probably true.  Children will put up with an awful lot of rubbish, when it comes to books, because they’re not usually the ones choosing which books come into their lives.  But they’re still discerning.  A book can have wonderful imagery and gorgeous illustrations, but if there is no conflict, no resolution, no proper story, then it is, in the words of my seven-year-old, ‘so boring.’

 

Children have capacity for complex thought, but not necessarily the ability to express it, and this has apparently been misinterpreted by many an aspiring author.  Children aren’t stupid, but from some of the books we expect them to read, we must think they are.  For a long time, children’s books have been viewed as somewhat secondary to those written for adults.  It’s ‘easy’ to write a children’s book, after all, isn’t it?

 

Well, no.  It isn’t.  A good children’s book needs a solid story.  It needs to have a beginning, middle and an end, which need to connect with one another and make sense.  It needs to have conflict and resolution.  It needs to be fairly short.  It needs to be fun.  It needs strong, appealing ‘goodies’ and mean (but not really that mean), unsympathetic ‘baddies’. That sounds like a lot of hard work, and it IS.  Those who’ve mastered the formula know only too well how difficult it can be.  But we will only encourage a wide vocabulary and expansive imaginations if we provide the fodder in the form of well-written, interesting, outstanding literature.

 

Children rely on us to make decisions for them about so many things, and the books we buy or borrow for them are no exception.  So we should rise to the challenge, and demand that authors do so as well–and when they come through with the goods, then we should let them know.  Buy their books.  Spread the word.  Encourage them to write more, to produce more excellent work.  Otherwise not only are our children reading substandard stories, but as those who are reading to them at bedtime, we’re having to endure them as well.  And life is too short–and childhood too precious–to waste by reading poorly written children’s books.

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11 thoughts on “Stupid is as Stupid Does.

  1. My parents were in a tough spot when I was young. I could speak in complete sentences by 18 mos, and I could read by 3.5 yo. They had a very hard time finding books that weren’t “too babyish” on the one hand, or “too long/graphic” OTOH. I was reading tween novels (~200 pages) before I’d hit double digits. My mother censored my reading choices very heavily, because she was afraid any teen romance novel might be too graphic and might contain concepts she wasn’t ready to explain. To this day, romance is probably my least favorite genre.

    Somewhat OT–I needed to have several major surgeries about ten years ago, when I was in my early thirties. Two of the books I read during my hospitalizations were a biography of Gregor Mendel (the father of modern genetics), and a biography of Rosalind Franklin (the woman who proved for the first time, through Xray crystallography, the “double helix” structure of DNA). I remember the nurses being very surprised that I was reading both of those books entirely for my own enjoyment, and not because of some sort of book club or class requirement.

    • Yes, I think it can be hard finding appropriate books for children who are above their age in reading. But it’s better than it was–despite the number of awful children’s titles, there are also a whole lot of really good ones which bridge the gap between baby books and older ones without delving into topics which are a bit too adult in nature!

      I also love reading books just to learn. Why wait until they’re required reading?!!

  2. I don’t know a lot about kids, having never had any, but I’d think it would be harder to write for kids, since it’s hard to pull the wool over a kid’s eyes. Children know truth when they see it. And truth is an essential part of good story-telling. Maybe that’s why myths and fairytales appeal to kids, as they are the truest of stories.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • They certainly are good at seeing the truth, and they’re often more capable than we give them credit for. I think you’re right in your observations about fairytales They show the truth and also it’s evident who’s good and evil. There are fewer shades of grey, which is good for young children, because find that kind of thing difficult.

  3. I agree with you 100%. I’ve come across so many bad children’s books. But then why should I be surprised? I’ve come across so much bad adult literature too! So when friends of mine have babies I always give gifts of books that my children (and my husband and I) love. If your child wants the same book read to them over and over again, then it’s important that it appeals to the parent who has to read it.

    My favourite books are Helen Cooper’s soup series – Pumpkin Soup, A Pipkin of Pepper and Delicious. Her illustrations are magical and the three characters (the duck, cat and squirrel) whose lives revolve around making pumpkin soup every day are amazing. Her book ‘The baby who wouldn’t go to bed’ is also wonderful.

    We also love Julia Donaldson – The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, The Snail and the Whale (my personal favourite), The Highway Rat, Room on the Broom, etc. They are so funny, with great rhymes, and there’s a subtle moral to each story.

    And where would we be without Dr. Seuss? The man was a genius!! We have a huge coffee-table type collection Dr. Seuss’s Baker’s Dozen. Even if you don’t have kids, you should own this amazing book.

    Now my girls are starting to read on their own, we’ve discovered Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggie series. Oh wow!! Simple drawings and only a couple of words on every page, but they are so delightful and tell such wonderful funny stories of friendship.

    Like you, before I became a parent I never appeciated children’s literature. But having waded through so much trash that perpetuates gender stereotypes, bad grammar, poor attempts are rhyming, etc, I cherish those amazingly well-written and thoughtful books all the more.

    • Absolutely. I give books to friends’ babies which have given us pleasure and which I know are well written. Thank you for some good suggestions, as well! We’re big fans of Julia Donaldson but I’ve not heard of Helen Cooper. Recently I read ‘I Want My Hat Back’ by Jon Klassen, and it’s so delightful. Reading is just one of those wonderful things which I’m so happy to be able to share with my children, and which I really feel is a cornerstone of childhood. And as you say, wading through all the trash really makes you appreciate how good some of the good ones are. (I often write to the authors and illustrators to let them know, too!)

  4. Thanks for a very interesting post. I also notice that kids are very excited by books that have recently come out (eg the Harry Potter rage) while being relatively unmoved by books that thrilled me as a kid (eg The Lord of the Rings). (I do some work in a library, so this is a trend I feel I’ve spotted; of course I may be wrong or biased). To me the quality of the two series is very different, but even kids who read widely will put HP over LOTR. I often wonder why this is so. Perhaps the later idioms speak to them more directly, in a way I can’t access. Anyway, thanks again.

    • Thank you for reading it!

      I don’t know about the HP books vs LOTR, although perhaps it’s a generational thing and it comes in waves? I am currently reading a book to my oldest child (he’s seven), which he can really read himself, but we’re taking turns. It’s set in the sixties in the UK, and there are some details I substitute so I don’t have to explain them 🙂 In a fantastical world, that shouldn’t matter though, I suppose… I was just talking to some friends about authors who influenced us while growing up, and as a young child, I loved Enid Blyton. I look back now and think, wow, talk about simplistic plot lines and pretty traditional gender roles, but at the time, I really got swept away with her imagination! I guess what I’m saying is, sometimes, even if you try to show them the best there is, there’s no accounting for taste!!

      • Yes I know the Enid Blyton paradox too: so much excitement in me over so little! I guess as kids we process plot and narrative and text in a particular way and as adults we forget that way! No other explanation 🙂

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