When is a Children’s Book Not a Children’s Book?

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  • The Importance of Taking Children’s Books (& Adults Who Read Them) Seriously

“You blog about children’s books but you don’t have children? Has anyone ever questioned that you’re not qualified to do this?”

” I see you write about children’s books. Do you have your own children? No? Oh, you’re a teacher. So you’re coming from a professional point of view then.”

These are a couple of examples of responses I’ve had in relation to me and my children’s book blog www.booksagogo.co.uk.  Being questioned by strangers about my suitability as a reader of children’s books has always struck me as a bit odd (and a bit rude). I find it embarrassing and uncomfortable and I’m ashamed to say that in order to avoid these sort of comments I find that I self-justify before they can begin.  I get in there first and say that as I teach and am also doing an MA in Children’s Literature it makes a lot of sense for me to be interested in children’s books. The truth is it’s actually the other way round. I’m a teacher because of my love of children’s books. I’m doing the MA because of my love of children’s books.

Children’s Books for Everyone

What if I wasn’t a teacher? What if I had no reason deemed ‘proper’ for writing about children’s books? What if I simply loved to read them- would that not be justification enough?  To be a proper champion of children’s books, I need to be up there waving my copy of Jill’s Gymkhana with pride and claiming children’s books on behalf of everyone. So here I am, waving.

Back Up

C.S. Lewis had it right. He wrote this brilliant piece on writing for children and shared his thoughts on being a reader of children’s books at any age:

(In defending children’s books) “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.”

Also:

“They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two.”

Children’s Literature as a Genre

If we consider children’s literature as a genre open to any age, it begins to make sense. For a start, childhood is not a static state of being. Children (like adults) are all different depending on time and circumstance. Children today read books written for the children of 20, 50, 100 + years ago without any thought to it.  For example, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden might be a ten year old child of The Empire who has never been to school, but she remains credible today because she has a spirit children can identify with.  It works because children recognise the similarities rather than the differences. So should we.

What is children’s literature anyway? Robinson Crusoe was written for adults but has always held a fascination for children. It has been abridged over time and is considered by most now as a children’s book. Tom Sawyer is a children’s book but not one I’ve seen in any of the schools I’ve worked in, which is a shame and a loss. The picture book Rosie’s Walk is one of the most satisfying reads I have had the pleasure to analyse as part of my course. Fairy tales are not always about the happily ever after. Accepting that children’s books are complex is essential. This is something you can remind yourself of every time there’s a controversial winner of a children’s book prize. There is nothing that children’s literature doesn’t deal with: war, poverty, death, cruelty, violence, abandonment, it’s all there. Can you handle it?

 You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Children’s fiction has come a long way from its moralistic and didactic roots. We are in a new golden age and the choice out there is astounding. I can only begin to touch on all the good things going on in the children’s book world. I encourage you to take a look and ask yourself what you expect from a good book. I suspect it will be very similar to what you hope a child will get from reading.

Expectations for All & Some Suggested Reads

  • Expand Horizons. (The Lie Tree, Doomspell Trilogy, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Deathscent)
  • Feel Empathy. (Wonder, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, The Incredible Journey, Perijee and Me, The Arrival)
  • Learn new things. (Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, Voices in the Park, The London Eye Mystery)
  • Be Delighted (The Bell Family, The Little Grey Men, Holiday House, I Capture the Castle)
  • Fire imagination. (The Earthsea Quartet, Strange Star, The Snow Merchant)
  • Have a laugh. (Who Let the Gods Out, Pugs of the Frozen North, I Can Only Draw Worms)
  • Get emotional. (Black Beauty, Skellig, Listen to the Moon)
  • Lose Yourself. (If You Find Me, Five Children on the Western Front, Darkmere)
  • Think. (Tape, Picture Me Gone, Noughts and Crosses, Winter Damage, Wells & Wong Mysteries)

Children’s books are for everyone. Have the hock and the lemon squash. Be enriched.

 


Guided Reads-a-Go-Go

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This is a new section we’re trying out which deals more with teaching texts- sorry non-schooly type folk. We spend quite a lot of time working with groups and classes on focus books so it seems to make sense that we share some of our experiences and would love to hear about yours too.

One of the best parts of my job is guided reading, especially talking to the children about their group reader and finding out their thoughts and opinions. Over the last few weeks I’ve been preparing new resources for my Year Fives based on the sort of books they want to read. The ability levels are typically spread in the level three to five belt of glory so the variety of books available are brilliant. Here’s what they went for:

The Silver Chair by CS Lewis

My higher ability children were drawn to this one in all honesty because of their experience of the Narnia film franchise rather than previous reading of the other books. They hadn’t heard of this one and I guess I bigged it up a bit because I think it not only stands alone better than any of the others, but also has some incredible moments: the arrival in Narnia via Aslan’s mountain for instance, the underground world description towards the end of the book and the unforgettable Puddleglum who is currently causing much confusion amongst the group who can’t figure out yet what they make of him.

Reading experiences obviously feed into writing (I would say that of course) and The Silver Chair is jam-packed full of deliciously inspiring and frankly nickable ideas to transfer to extended writing tasks. There’s enough in the text for the kids to really get their teeth into, but this does require a level of commitment as they need to continue reading in their own time to prepare for the lessons. This didn’t exactly work out for our first session… Only one of the group had read the section I’d asked them to- grrr. It happens of course but turned out well, giving us an opportunity to concentrate on structure and reading for meaning which turned out to be useful and informative.

Before we started reading together as a guided group I spent absolutely hours trying to squeeze the first five chapters of the text into the seven assessment focuses: mind numbing, completely and utterly confusing and I’d recommend avoiding it at all costs. I’ve put the resource I prepared onto TES Resourses. Here’s the link*. It’s got page references specific to my copy but hopefully will be of use and help you win back some valuable weekend time. So far it’s given me good insight into specific strengths and weaknesses in a far more detailed way then before, revealed a few surprises and given points for progression.

Read The Silver Chair if you’ve got a motivated group who like a challenge and are up for a good discussion. Be prepared to trust them with taking the book home (not strictly allowed at my school, but hey) as they’ll need to if you want to cut straight to the more valuable questioning. Too long for much reading out loud, I’d avoid this text with children who need to spend time on fluency and expression as it would be way too daunting. If they love it, there’s a whole world of Narnia out there for them- hooray!

The Diary of a Killer Cat by Anne Fine

I’ve got a group of more reluctant but brave readers (level three) working on this book and so far I’ve been really impressed with it. The children have got stuck straight in and have been loving it. They’ve been well motivated to read and work on tasks independently when need be, which is more often than not as I have no support available for these sessions. It’s a short, simple book which is based around the build up and reveal of a joke. Best to warn you though, as the title suggests it’s not exactly death-free. Consider any gentle and sensitive souls! My lot are built of stern stuff, no problems here.

Where The Silver Chair will endeavour to push the boundaries of the children’s imagination, The Diary of a Killer Cat will show less confident writers how to build their plots around a simple idea and improve their structure and composition skills. I love the diary style and the use of the cat as narrator- so do the group. As with The Silver Chair I’ve put together a table of AF questions to use in teacher led sessions- link as before– and I’ve done it for the whole book this time. Hope it’s useful, please let me know if you want more of this sort of thing.

Read The Diary of a Killer Cat if you want to give improving readers the satisfaction of finishing their first ‘free reader’ unscathed. Read it because it’s an honest to goodness fun kids book with lovely illustrations. Don’t expect to be blown away with descriptive diamonds and metaphorical wonders, but do enjoy watching the children experience a book with a different ‘voice’ to usual. You’ll get loads of useful information out of this- get as many sessions in before Parents’ Evening as you can!

* Links are not to the exact publications I have- couldn’t find them unfortunately but have ISBN numbers should you want them.