“I don’t like hyenas so this book would never have been my first choice if I had been buying it… my dislike grew somewhat because the story is longer than I like for a bedtime story…”
This is a quote from a recent “review” of my children’s picture book I Don’t Want To Be a Hyena, published in the “Read of the Week” section of Africa Community Media’s stable of free newspapers.
We learn two things from these comments:
The above-mentioned “review” is one example of an approach that is damaging to efforts toward a strong culture of literacy. It conveys only what its author does not know, therefore does not value and is reluctant to engage with. She does not know much about hyenas or the long-form picture book genre which includes titles like Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile and The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me, and is therefore not open to engaging on the basis of either.
There is certainly no censure in not knowing. Life is a constant process of learning. However, there is censure in being unwilling to learn, and passing on this attitude of unwillingness to children and the reading public, thereby undermining the very literacy goals to which we aspire.
On a recent book tour across South Africa with I Don’t Want To Be a Hyena, teachers and librarians thanked me for “providing books of substance” for children. Educators followed up the reading sessions by helping children discover more about hyenas, in the process learning more about these complex creatures themselves. This included playing YouTube video of hyenas laughing – which both children and adults found fascinating. Children as young as three years old remained engrossed in the story to the end.
In a recent interview, children’s author and illustrator Molly Idle, noted, “… there are many beautifully spare or wordless picture books in existence. But there are also any number of lovely looooong picture books too. The words you use should be dictated by the story you’re telling”[i] (my emphasis).
Yet more sobering are the social implications of an assessment like this. At the root of all prejudice and consequent social alienation is the unwillingness to engage based on pre-existing bias. One of the goals of children’s literature is to cultivate empathy and understanding. As responsible adults, we need to model these values for children.
This is not truly a review at all. It is simply an expression of the author’s preconceptions. The benefits of children’s literature are well documented. However, as mentioned in my previous blog “Kidlit: Legit Lit”, that value is undermined when we afford it only our most superficial and dismissive attention. The quality of a review of any children’s book can either lower or raise the tone of the conversation around children’s literature.
In this instance, a more constructive and valid approach might have included:
We do our children a great disservice when we underestimate them by setting artificial limitations on their literary capacity: “A five-year-old can only tolerate books with a 100 to 500 word count on a limited range of topics, therefore we will not expose him to anything outside of this.”
As both a writer and a former educator, my purpose is to entertain; educate; promote self-esteem, empathy and social connection; and yes, build a solid foundation of literacy that will sustain a child throughout her life. This is a task that cannot simply be abandoned to teachers, librarians, academics, and charitable organizations. It is one for which we each carry not only societal, but individual responsibility: at the most basic level, in our attitudes toward books, reading, learning, and openness toward engagement that we pass on to the next generation.
[i] SCBWI Fall 2019 Bulletin: About the Cover: A chat with cover artist Molly Idle by Sarah Baker p.6
My mother was a voracious reader, and her example instilled in me a passion for books and reading. Our city library was a twenty-minute car ride away. By the time I was five, I would devour the maximum number of age-appropriate books allowed by my library card on the car journey home, and beg to go right back for more. My mother scoured second-hand book stalls and stores to keep me supplied, yet my thirst remained insatiable. Eventually I started reading her books also. By the time I was nine, and beginning with A Tale of Two Cities, I was mainlining the works of Charles Dickens.
Much is written about the value of children’s literature. To summarize, it
This value cannot be underestimated. However, we impose an artificial limit on the value of children’s literature, when we relegate it to little more than its usefulness to what a child could become: to an ideal of what the child will one day be. This speaks to both how we view children’s literature and also childhood itself.
Surely the child’s own value is inherent in who he is now – in his present personhood – not only in what he may become. Similarly, children’s literature carries intrinsic literary value for what it is in itself – not merely for how it may help the child develop.
Good literature has a transforming effect on all of us, whether subtle or dramatic, no matter our age or stage of development. But whether or not we are impacted by it in this way, does not detract from the innate value of the literature itself: the artistry and skill of its use of language and illustration; its universal themes; its truth and beauty; the imaginative experience it provides; the responses of delight and wonder it evokes; what it reveals about our lives and the world around us.
It is time we took children’s literature as seriously as it deserves, as reflected in the media space allocated to the review of children’s books; in our regard for and engagement with children’s book writers and publishers; in the attention given to children’s writing and literature in writing programs and literature courses.
Philip Pullman, children’s author and Oxford academic, famously stated, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.”
Indeed, literary and academic heavyweights like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, to name a few, all wrote for children
Children’s literature occupies a legitimate and valuable space in the field of literature, and as such deserves our time, attention, and serious consideration.
I daydream my stories. While driving down the freeway, while walking the dog, while washing dishes, in the moments before sleep claims me, and the moments when whatever outwardly occupies me is not stimulating enough to engage me. At all of these times and many others, my inner landscape is populated with characters and imaginary storyboards and plot line crises and “what if” questions.
It was the most common complaint of teachers to my parents at parent-teacher meetings: “She daydreams”. My parents would dutifully report this to me without censure. If anything, they seemed mildly amused. And so I continued daydreaming. Many years later I found out that the same teacher complaint had been made of my Dad, a generation before me. Daydreaming, it seems, runs in the family, and for this I am grateful.
Sometimes the daydream begins with a key phrase or title line: “How the Cheetah Got His Tears”. How did the cheetah get his tears? I had no idea, but the line would not let go of me. Then one day, caught up in the inner moving pictures of my own daydreams, the stage set filled with the stately cheetah accompanied by other wildlife. As the characters came to life in my imagination, the problem between them – and its resolution – gradually unfolded.
When I sat down to record what had already played out in my daydreaming, the story wrote itself.
Vision, innovation, invention, and strategy are birthed from daydreaming. And ah yes, so also are stories and art and music.
But daydreaming is not self-limiting. Creative teaching and creative learning too, are its fruit. Education systems have largely made the mistake of regarding daydreaming as the opposite of concentration, not realizing that on the contrary, daydreaming is a highly focused form of concentration. Perhaps we should be encouraging it, rather than trying to “correct” it; harnessing it, instead of trying to shut it down. Perhaps we should facilitate our family members and friends and coworkers and students and employees in their daydreaming, and help them find outlets and avenues to give those daydreams expression.
Find out what stimulates your own daydreaming. For me it can be a number of things: listening to Mozart, walking on the beach, watching the dawn, working in the garden… I also know what shuts down my daydreaming: Not only the censure (or fear of it) of other people, but also watching too much television or spending too much time on the internet and social media – passive “activities” where “daydreams” are provided already packaged through an LED screen.
Once you have found your way back to daydreaming again, help someone else do the same. Let’s help to open up safe and unrestricted space for the dreamers and their daydreams in our homes, churches, schools,and workplaces. That’s my daydream!