Substantial Children’s Lit or Why I Refuse to Stop Reading Kids Books

So just when I think there can’t possibly be more, I got a notification this week that a poem of mine will be in the back-to-school issue  (probably Aug/Sept) of the e-zine Stories for Children Magazine! I’m so excited for a variety of reasons. Obviously, another acceptance makes me happy, but it’s more than that. Yeah, I kind of gravitate to the dark, the fantastic, the weird, the heartbreaking, and the horrid…

But I really, really love children’s literature. In a major way. I grew up devouring titles by Tomie dePaola (aaaaaagh That one with Strega Nona and the magic pasta pot and the pasta goes EVERYWHERE!!), Steven Kellogg (aaaaaaaaah the Island of the Skog and The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash!!!), Nancy Carlson (Zomg ANYTHING about Harriet. That time, with the Halloween candy, and her little brother, and it was so cute!!!), and pretty much anything illustrated by James Marshall (SPACE CASE! SPACE CASE! SPACE CASE!)

ahem. I mean I like them a lot. Seriously, I was the kid that read Where the Wild Things Are and immediately tried to find the island so I could live with the wild things and be at one with them. You can imagine how many parenting manuals my folks went through (kidding, actually they encouraged my imagination and creativity, a choice I’m sure they’ve lived to regret at some point or another). And I was very lucky because in my older childhood years  our local library hosted talks by some of these amazing authors. It still blows my mind that I got to meet Steven Kellogg and Nancy Carlson. (Though not Madeline L’Engle. This is a sore point for me that still crushes my soul a little bit.) Gary Paulson came to my school once and talked about his experiences dog sledding (Hatchet was required reading for seventh grade at the time, if I remember right. He is one of the best public speakers I’ve heard to date, and I still love Hatchet to this day. It is a huge deal because at the age of twelve I was very much a girl interested that was only girl things and then I had to read some book about a boy stuck in the wild camping and stuff. Bah. But then I got addicted to the lush descriptions and that needling thought of ‘what would I do if it was me?’)

I feel like while children’s books have become very profitable, we tend to forget that there are some truly amazing titles out there. The Rain on Kapiti Plain is simple, but gorgeous and calming. I love the folk story Abiyoyo, the hilarity of Miss Nelson is Missing, the musicality of Mama Don’t Allow, the irony of Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch, and so many others.

And you know what else I miss? (Look at those last five titles and think real hard – that’s a clue…)

Reading Rainbow.

It is now a very sore point in my life that if I ever get the children’s book  manuscript I have kicking around published, it will never be on Reading Rainbow. I’m pretty sure that was one of the things that got me penning little stories as a kid. That show opened a whole world for me. Every day I plunked myself down in front of the TV to hear a new story then to learn some behind-the-scenes aspect of the plot that tied into the theme of the day. And in the summer my mother would take me down to the library daily so we could not only check out the featured book, but as many of the books Levar Burton encouraged viewers to take a look at (though don’t take his word for it!). From the start of that show until lord, I don’t know…let’s just say for a good many years I read practically every single title on that show that I could find, especially if we had a long drive on a vacation.

And now, no matter what I do, no matter how accomplished I get…Levar Burton will never hold up a copy of anything I write. Sigh. I think my inner six-year-old just died.

In all fairness that show had a massive run and it achieved some incredible things and presented some amazing topics. I don’t know if current generations would gravitate to something like that now in an age where everything is instant gratification and slightly more one-dimensional. I kind of hope they would. Every generation needs something like this, some basic portal that shows you a list of possibilities that you might not find elsewhere, all made very approachable and interesting as well as entertaining.

As I grew older and moved on to franchised series (BSC anyone?) and books I felt I was supposed to like (Little Women. I will never deny its impact or the fact that it’s a good book, but I don’t like it. I can’t even give very good reasons for it, other than it just felt like the plots all went bonkers about halfway through. I just never really took to it. ),  there are three titles (well, a title, a collection, and a series) that grabbed me by the throat and still haven’t let me go.

Heidi was given to me when I was a young teen and probably older than what the actual age range of the book was. I don’t care. I don’t care that it could be viewed as simplistic, overly moral, or saccharine. I love it. I love the detail, I love the sweetness, the descriptions of the mountains, the descriptions of the food, and all the little quirky interactions and misunderstandings between the characters – not to mention the actual plot. The fact that it can simplify faith in a way that gives everyone something to have hope about…I think that’s amazing. I have had my own personal beliefs challenged and changed fifty billion times growing up, but I still utterly stand by the core of this book. I fall back on it when I’m having doubts about my own life. That’s right, I’m sayin’ it. I read Heidi when I have personal doubts and dilemmas. So there. I’ve probably read this book start to finish at least fifty times and it never disappoints me. No, the movie version isn’t that great and I get that this is not the title for everyone. But for me its simplicity, description, and plain goodness just work.

I have a large collection of Beatrix Potter in a few places on my bookshelf. I say in a few places because I have read this thing so many times it’s fallen apart and whenever I want to read a story I have to remember what chunk it’s in. I love her stories. I have a secret love of adorable things and there is nothing like talking animals wearing clothes in farm settings. I want to snuggle them all. While I like some better than others (The Tailor of Gloucester, A Tale of Two Bad Mice, Squirrel Nutkin, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, Jeremy Fisher, and Mrs. Tiggy Winkle are my top favorites), they all present a soothing quality. When I’m having trouble sleeping this is the book I usually go to. I also have a mad love for The Fairy Caravan, though I don’t own that one.

I was given the Little House series by my grandmother when I was eight. I did not immediately fall in love with the books. Actually, I thought they were kind of weird and boring and a little hard to pay attention to, probably because I was randomly given them, told they were important, but wasn’t given much of a context so I could compare or appreciate them against other things. I think it took me until I was nine or ten to really gain an appreciation for them. I’ve hung onto this series ever since then, though I probably need to buy a new set – if Beatrix Potter is in chunks, my copies of these books are in tatters, I’ve read them so many times. I will say right now that while the TV show was amusing and sweet, I would take the books over it any day of the week. I also think it takes a certain type of person to appreciate the books, because they are slower-paced. I love descriptions of things and every book has that coming out its ears. I mean all the food descriptions in Farmer Boy border on pornography…I want to dive into that book and eat EVERYTHING! As I’ve grown older I also appreciate the different levels in the books more – for every “simple” story line there are little asides and things you don’t catch outright. You get glimpses into the people these stories represent, and if you go on to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s other works, you have a huge appreciation for everything they went through. (Yes, there are actually a few more titles not in the series and a collection of articles she wrote for papers when she lived in Missouri. They are amazing and more in-depth; I probably enjoy these more “adult” books more than the children titles now, but I would never have found them without the Little House series. )

I’ve heard interviews with the television show cast where they remark that the books are an idealized version of pioneer life through the eyes of a little girl. ….Uh, did you read The Long Winter?  I’ve also heard complaints that nothing happens in the books. Uh…how about every time the Ingalls family nearly gets ahead something happens like illness, locust plagues, being forced off their land, a winter that nearly starves everyone in town?  And what about that time when Laura’s teaching school and staying with a family and the wife comes after her husband with a knife? All the descriptions of activities help keep everything that actually happens in perspective – you have to know how things worked to know why the events are important. They’re a unique time capsule. Yes, they are cozy titles, but they also show that faith and work are qualities you need in life. (And if you have a set that includes The First Four Years, well, that book just gives a whole other dimension to the collection as a whole.) I might gravitate to these because I have pioneer blood in my own family, but every time I read them I am severely humbled by what people went through in their daily lives just to get by. And give me the Almanzo/Laura romance in the books over the TV show version any day of the week.

So yes, I love children and youth literature, I write it now and again myself, and I consider it important. It’s not just about getting kids to read, it’s about giving them substance that makes them think, that makes them feel safe enough to explore, that gives them something worth comparing their own experiences with.

And if I just so happen to sneak a title every now and again as an adult…well, it’s always good to be reminded of those things now that I’m grown, too.

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