It is sometimes said that a good children’s book must accomplish two things: (1) it must appeal to parents, so that they will buy the book in the first place; and (2) it must appeal to the young minds the book is intended for. Whether it’s shared aloud, covertly read under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime, or assigned as class reading — children’s books have the ability to capture imaginations, perhaps more than any other genre. I have long felt that the most lasting impact from literature may happen at a very young age. This is the reason that initiating children into “a life with literature” is an important duty for all of us. And not just initiating them with any books.
I sometimes hear people say things like, “it doesn’t really matter what books, just as long as we get them reading”. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. If we think of our kids as blank canvases when they enter the world, then we must take seriously the fact that the content of everything they consume or to which they are exposed will leave some sort of “mark”. If we are vigilant and careful, that mark may inspire, challenge, and uplift; if we neglect it or grow blasé about it, that mark may diminish – or worse still – blemish them. In our classrooms and homes, the nature, quality, and subject matter of reading material is a significant responsibility.
Most would agree that children’s literature is extremely valuable at both school and at home; however, we must differentiate between quality and mediocre literature in order to give students access to the best books and stories. They are not all of equal value and some can even work at cross purposes to our ultimate goals for our children’s development. A quick survey of what sometimes passes for children’s literature these days can lead to a syllabus of tawdry tales and anthologies of toilet humour. Many of these formulaic and poorly-written series may get kids reading, but not without numbing their minds and stagnating their vocabularies.
So why is this important? While good children’s literature is valuable in providing an opportunity to respond to literature, it is also an important touchstone to cultural knowledge, emotional intelligence, creativity, and social and personality development. Reading the best books when young also ensures that we remain connected through “literature’s history” with other people across generations. The ability to read well depends not only on broad knowledge and phonetic understanding, but also on shared knowledge.
In the end, a lot of shared knowledge is passed along via the best stories, all of which stand the test of time. Long after a so-called wimpy kid is lost and forgotten, children and students will still be learning about the triumphs of a certain Tailor of Gloucester or a Little Prince who looked at the world through different eyes.
If our children do not read these books (…and many others!) in school, they may never ever read them at all. And that would be a shame because, next to our own good name, the books and stories we read are some of life’s only true possessions!
Ric Anderson, Head of School