Literacy and Responsibility
“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
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Avril is a writer, speaker, and amateur photographer.