Thursday, December 29, 2016

Writing for Children

Isaac B. Werner believed in educating children as the best hope for their own improvement and for the nation.  He helped build the country school and often made repairs on his own, just to keep the school, its grounds, and the out buildings in good condition.  He also shipped some of his own books to his young nephew back in Pennsylvania.  Although he never had children of his own, he cared about young people.

Among the list of responsibilities suggested by Neil Gaiman were two suggestions for writers of books for children; however, I think both suggestions are good advice to teachers and parents.

First, he urged that writers recognize " obligation to our write true things...not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages...not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers' throats like adult birds feeding babies."

Collection of Fairy Tales from several countries
That advice should be heeded by those of us buying books for children.  I love to give nursery rhymes as baby gifts, and I love fairy tales.  Have you really paid attention to these rhymes and stories?  They are tough stuff!  What did the old lady who lived in the shoe with too many children  do?  "She gave them some Broth without any bread; She whipped them all soundly and put them to bed."  And poor Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel!  Frog in "Wind in the Willows" is always getting into trouble.  Charlotte the spider dies.  Yet, children read these traditional tales and identify without being traumatized.  They recognize the hardships of Black Beauty and cry, and as Gaiman says, they learn empathy and finish reading slightly changed.  Classic stories for children include the realities of life, without sugar-coating or slamming children with it, and through literature they become better equipped to deal with life's challenges.

Too many modern books for children are heavy handed in delivering these messages, or they don't give children enough credit for figuring out the lessons without preaching or explaining the lessons for them.  Not everyone loves nursery rhymes and fairy tales as I do, but there are also modern classics whose authors have avoided preaching, lecturing, and moralizing.  It is our responsibility as teachers, parents, librarians, and friends to find the modern classics that kids will enjoy and cherish.

Scott Gustafson, Robert Ingpen, & Kinuko Y. Craft
Second, " understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we've lessened our own future and diminished theirs."  The same advice applies to those of us who buy books for children, or who make trips to the library a regular part of their lives and who fill our homes with books.  (See last week's blog, "Responsibilities Toward Building Literacy," 12-22-2016" and "Literacy Then and Now," at 12-8-2016 for more of Neil Gaiman's wisdom.)

Although Gaiman does not address the importance of children's book illustrators, I believe illustrators are equally important in developing a taste for the arts.  Three of my favorite illustrators are Scott Gustafson, Robert Ingpen, and Kinuko Y. Craft; however, there are so many incredible illustrators that I could name, working in a variety of styles.  Recently, the style of children's book illustrations has shifted away from the fine artists I admire toward more cartoonish drawings.  In my opinion, children see enough flashy, cartoon-like pictures on TV and in advertisements without having that sort of imagery in their books, especially when there are fine artists illustrating books for children.  I would paraphrase Gaiman by saying we should 'understand and acknowledge that as illustrators for children these artists are doing important work.'  (The books pictured above are Gustafson's "Classic Fairy Tales," Ingpen's "The Wind in the Willows," and Craft's "Beauty and the Beast.")

The balance between turning children on to reading and turning them away from reading isn't easy, but the three blogs in which I have shared Neil Gaiman's suggestions are a good place to start.

1 comment:

Kim said...

I'm doing my part to promote literacy with our granddaughters. Before we see the girls, I usually stop in the Hutchinson Public Library children's department and take a sack of books along with me. It's not that they don't have piles of books at home. They do. But it's fun for them - and me - to offer some alternatives to the ones they read all the time. We raised two readers, so it's fun to see that carry on to the next generation. It won't be long before the older granddaughter will be reading to me, too!