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.