*Art courtesy of decortherapia.blogspot.com*
Hello, my blogland beauties. (Okay, so between writing that first sentence and this one, I just spent 45 minutes being sucked in by the wonder that is Pinterest. Kind of like a squirrel or a small dog distracted by pretty, shiny things.Curse my weakness for aesthetically pleasing objects!) ANYWAY...if you've read any of my recent posts (and by 'recent' I mean the last time I posted which was, I believe, 2 bajillion years ago), you know that I've had books on the mind lately. Yes, more than usual. I taught a small class on children's literature on Wednesday night at our church. Which, A.) was a lot of fun, if I do say so myself, B.) allowed me to put heads together with another fine authorial-type mind, and C.) has given me a great excuse, for the past month or so, to sit and read (or stand and read, walk and read, whatevs). A LOT. And I thought it might be fun, and hopefully beneficial to someone out there, to share the information from said class here in the ol' blogosphere. *Forewarning*: It's a long post, but I'll go ahead and toot my own horn as much as to say 'I think it's worth the read.' Toot toot!
The focus of the class was finding good, valuable literature for children--getting parents and children to share reading experiences together and to really communicate about what they're reading and learning--beginning with a discussion on why it's so essential to make literature an integral part of our children's lives in the first place.
From an early age, even from birth, the act of reading to a child is, of course, much much more about spending time together than anything else. As Elliott D. Landau, former professor of Child Development and Children's Literature at the University of Utah, wrote:
"But the primary purpose of reading to your child early in his life is not to provide quantities of anything for his future learning; rather, it is to insure a quality experience in your earliest parent-child relationships. The fact that he will be preparing himself for the later discipline of having to read is secondary. Reading experiences for children in the first three years of their lives must not be for instructive purposes; they should be for the opportunity of mother, father, and child’s sharing time, sound, and delight with one another."
(Don't you love that? 'Sharing time, sound, and delight with one another?')
As our children grow, the reasons for making reading time a part of the daily rhythm of our homes only increase. Hearing sounds and connecting words with those sounds, feeling the patterns in sentence and story and syntax...all these are essential aids in a child's own reading development. And, it has always been my firm belief that, once a child learns how to read, the entire world is open to them. Not just the world of knowledge, though certainly that, but literally the entire world. A reader can learn and do and be anything.(And just in case you're doubting yourselves, my lovelies, yes. That does include YOU.) Literature provides us all with an awareness of worlds and thoughts and experiences outside our own small spheres of existence. One more lit. professor's thoughts on that note:
Richard H. Cracroft
And if that's not reason enough to raise bibliophiles, I don't know what is.
*photo by tinywhitedaisies.tumblr.com/page/104/via Pinterest*
But what about the what? (What the what?) WHAT should we read? What is worth our time? Which books will instruct and entertain and nourish and enrich the whole child--mind, body, and soul--and which are nothing more than metaphorical processed brain candy (with added MSG)?
I'm not going to make a list of books that I think you and your family should not read. I am not in favor of book-banning in any form. What you read is your decision. But I am more than happy to share my thoughts and opinions (and the thoughts of wiser peeps than me) on what constitutes worthwhile literature. (See a synopsis of my definition here.)
*Caveat.* One of the moms in Wednesday night's class brought up the very valid point that if children are forced to read what we want them to read, rather than what they want to read, they will learn only to dread reading. However if they are allowed to read the 'candy' books (ie: the annoying Scooby Doo leveled readers Riley is absolutely addicted to at the mo') when they want to, and learn to associate fun and pleasure with story time, then they will most likely be open to other books, and, eventually, Scooby Doo shall pass.
More thoughts from Messrs. Landau and Cracroft:
"After a child has learned the basic skills of reading (methodology notwithstanding), it is imperative that he be introduced to the literature of his language. To learn to read and then to read only to fulfill an assignment is sad. To learn to read and then to read only some of the errant nonsense presently found in certain “reading programs” that teach the children a predetermined sequence of skills from stories that make a mockery of language by their disregard for the importance of literary content is pitiful. In all great literature, in superb children’s literature, too, there is that which vibrates the soul, which enables man and child to enter into the lives and thoughts of others in a way not afforded by those who would engage children in the art of linguistic acrobatics as a substitute for literature."
Elliott D. Landau
"Great literature exudes sweetness and light. Great literature must by nature deal with the old verities or truths of the heart, which William Faulkner has called “the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Great literature enables us to hold our heads high, to be certain in our hearts that, despite all, truth will prevail. Great literature cuts through the dross and accumulations of earthcrust that build upon our souls, and in cutting through to eternal truths, such literature allows us to focus on the many noble traits of man...the great works of literature enlarge and interpret passages of scripture and make vivid and unforgettable abstract ideas such as, “Wickedness never was happiness,” “Men are that they might have joy,” “Love thy neighbor,” and “Thou shalt not kill”—ideas that we must clothe with meaning through our own experiences that we can better understand through great books and great art or even good books and good art."
Richard H. Cracroft
Ummm, pretty sure I'm in love with that last quote.
So those are some thoughts on the Whys and the Whats. Now how about the How? How do we find the good books? Where, among the bajillions of published tomes in our modern world, do we even begin? Well, gentle readers, I ask you this: how old are your children?
I was surprised to learn Wednesday night that many parents are not at all familiar with the recommended age divisions that exist in the world of children's lit. Not that age is always a definitive indicator of what a child should be reading, everyone is different, but it's a place to start. So, if you're familiar with these already, feel free to scroll on down the line, otherwise, here you go.
The five categories within children's literature typically are: Picture Books, Early Readers, Middle Grade, Upper Middle Grade, and Young Adult.
Picture books are usually aimed at children ages 0-8 (if you're an aspiring picture book writer you will, however, need to be more specific than that when querying your MS--0-3? 4-8? 5-7?). Nearly always intended to be read aloud, these books are simplistic in language, but can be Marianas- Trench- deep in emotion (it's impossible for me to get through Library Lion without bawling my eyes out), and shorter in word count--usually fewer than 1000 words. And, as the title "Picture Book" might be expected to imply, these books are heavily illustrated with art that is at least as important to, if not more important than, the words in telling the story.
Next come Early Readers, also sometimes called Beginning Readers or Leveled Readers. Early Readers are written specifically for kids who are learning to work out the technicalities of our nonsensical, illogical, and yet beautiful English language. Usually, but not always, these kids are between the ages of 5 and 8. Early Readers have a slightly longer word count of up to 5000 words, but are written with a limited and repetitive vocabulary.
Middle Grade books are sometimes referred to as Chapter Books because they are, essentially, the first novels a child is presented with. With language progressing beyond that of the Early Readers and a word count increasing to anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 words, Middle Grade books are perfect for children who are ready for more of a challenging read, more of a story, and characters with whom they can identify (typically ages 8-12).
Then we have Upper MGs. This is a relatively new distinction that some publishers do not even recognize as a separate grouping. From what I have read, Upper Middle Grade novels have emerged as a result of the widening gap between the content of Middle Grade and Young Adult books. Upper MGs are written with 12-14 yr. olds in mind--kids who are ready to move beyond Because of Winn Dixie but aren't yet ready for The Hunger Games or Uglies. Word count averages around 60,000.
And then of course we have the YAs. Young Adult books are generally full-length novels of 60,000 words or more, aimed at readers 14 and up (some publishers would say 12 and up) and featuring characters in that age range.. Incidentally, the YA room is my favorite section of the library. I may no longer qualify as a young adult, but in my humble opinion, authors who are writing for this age group simply try harder. They have everything else in teenagers' lives to compete with--from personal media to social media to dating to school to hormonal/ emotional upheaval and turmoil--it's just going to take more to hook a YA reader and convince them to sit down and read.
Now, having said all that, it's time for another caveat. *Most of the books in a specific age division will be about characters who are that age (ie: Wendy in Peter Pan is 12, you're going to find her in the MGs). The exception to this rule, however, occurs when the content of a story is deemed by publishers too mature or inappropriate for the age grouping into which the protagonist falls. To quote the infamous EA from Editorial Anonymous:
"A Middle Grade book can have doubt, but not depression. It can have flirtation, but not seduction. There can be the bomb, but not the fuse."
Even with an 11 or 12 yr old main character, a novel dealing heavily with anything from abuse to drugs to drinking to suicide to sex is going to get kicked up into the YAs. Not that there aren't children of that age--or even younger--who are dealing with these issues in reality; there absolutely are. But they are no more prepared to face them in real life than they are in books. That's the point. One could argue that by "protecting" children in this way leaves them naive and vulnerable. Maybe so. But I would submit that it is the parents and caregivers and teachers who should be talking with children openly about these issues, not book characters. It is the idea of destructive, abusive, and harmful behavior being portrayed as 'normal' that we need to be wary of. Shelving these books in the YA section is just a metaphor for what adults ought to be doing in actuality: not sheltering or hiding children from the harsh realities of the world, but saying "I know you don't know how to deal with this on your own yet, so I'm here to help. I am your advocate. I will answer your questions openly and honestly, I will teach you with love, but I won't leave you to meet this on your own."
Is that helpful at all? I hope so. Now, armed with that knowledge, may I present:
Amber June's Three Step Plan for Finding Good Children's Literature
Hurrah! Okay, step one:
Then, read some more.
I don't think I really need to go into elaborate detail here. An adult cannot expect to know what is out there in the world of children's lit. if he or she is not reading children's lit. Nor can parents expect their kids to value the reading experience and make time for it if they don't set the example themselves. Now, I know (trust me, I sooo know) that reading takes time. And not everyone has time to spare. So as a last resort fallback to doing the reading yourself, try checking out commonsensemedia.org. I love it. You can look up any book, game, app, movie, or t.v. show in their system and read reviews from parents and educators, as well as detailed synopses of content. Their 10 Beliefs from their Mission Statement:
Allow me to expound. Hopefully every parent out there has friendships, or at least acquaintances, established with other parents who share your views on parenting, on standards, on priorities. Friends (or family members) whom you know would, if put in a position to do so, teach your child about life in a way you would want them to be taught. I am blessed to have many friends and family member like this in my life. The point of this step is: Talk to them! Share with each other the good books, the great reading experiences. Let one another know what books you've encountered that have not provided an uplifting experience for your family (but remember not to be offended if your friends disagree). Help each other out. Solidarity sister (or brother, as the case may be)!
And step three:
"C" is for Community
Here's a not-so-secret secret about children's librarians. No one becomes a children's librarian because it's the only job they could get. They're not in it for the money, or the glamour, or the employee discount. People become children's librarians because THEY LOVE CHILDREN'S LITERATURE. With a passion. And they know children's literature. And, they want to pass that knowledge on to you! Think about it. Have you ever met a children's librarian who was like, "Sorry, I'm not going to help you find books your kids will enjoy and benefit from. That's your problem." Ummm, no. At least I haven't. Note to fellow Missoulians: Our local librarians are a-maz-ing. Especially the Youth Events Coordinator, Dana, who always has the time to talk with parents about what their children are interested in, who always will walk you right to the book you're looking for, who always has at least a dozen recommendations right off the top of his head. So grateful for him.
So, who are the librarians in your community? How about great teachers or school librarians? Bookshop owners? The point is, literature by nature creates communities of like-minded people by giving them shared experiences through books. Step outside your comfort zone and talk to people!
The "C" is also referring to larger community--the worldwide community of writers, publishers, and educators involved in the world of children's lit. Specifically applied: book awards. We've all heard of The Newbery, The Caldecott, and maybe even The National Book Award, but what about The Carnegie? ALA Notables? The Michael L. Printz? The Young Reader's Choice? These are all awards that, in one way or another, have to do with excellence in literature for children and young adults. And there are lists of them ready and waiting at just about every library in the country, as well as on the American Library Association website. Now I'm not saying that you should assume that just because a book has won an award it's great literature. Or even that it's good literature. That's a matter of opinion and yours might differ from the award committee's (mine does about 25% of the time). And you should definitely not assume that because a book has won an award you don't need to wonder what your child might be reading about. But I am saying that, like the age divisions, it's a place to start.
*my favorite painting: The Fairy Tale by Sir Walter Firle, via art.com*
And that's that. three steps that I hope are helpful, plus an inordinate amount of rambling. I'd love to know your Whys and Whats and Hows; please share them in the comments! Then go grab your kids and read.