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Discussing children’s literature – what’s in it for the kids?

By John Cohen - posted Monday, 14 June 2004

With politicians jumping on the literacy bandwagon one starts to wonder if there is a pot of gold, or at least a winning vote, at the end of the reading rainbow. Mind you, most of them haven’t really started to separate out literacy from literature and all they know is that it looks good if they are seen reading to kids.

Children’s literature has been around for a long time and before the change over from didacticism to reading for enjoyment there were many words written about how children should behave - ranging from not picking one’s nose while serving one’s lord at the table to how a child might die an appropriate and holy death. Then there was the intermediate stage where education and enjoyment travelled together and so there were publications such as The Water Babies. Finally enjoyment was allowed to surface for its own sake around the turn of the 19th century although critics, since then, have had a field day with the likes of Peter Pan and Wind in the Willows. As a child I read them for pleasure and failed to realise that they contained hidden depths of sexual awakenings and challenges to the established social order through subtle attack on class structure. I’ve long since learnt how naïve I was and these books were really for adults who needed to gain PhD’s.

Today adult critics still enjoy tearing the text limb from limb but children and young adolescents have a vast range of books in which to immerse themselves. Now, however, what children choose to read and what they have almost forced on them by well-meaning adults are two quite different matters. Let’s face it: many kids after reaching double-digit birthdays don’t read a lot for pleasure and are more interested in television, computer games and physical activities, although information books get a guernsey. We might question why and it probably can be traced back to the home environment on the one hand and the deceptive and seductive presentation of the new technologies on the other.


What is it, then, that the politicians are after? They want school-aged children, in particular, to increase their reading scores so that they can say that school standards are being raised. I wonder how many Members of Parliament read for pleasure on a regular basis.  Perhaps I am being too cynical for indeed there are lots of wonderful books for children being published in Australia. Where would Australian children be without Mem Fox’s Possum Magic - now well over 20 years old? But we don’t have to go back 20 years to find powerful Australian books that absorb and extend minds both young and old.

Bob Graham’s deft illustrations and stories touch the foundations of our cultural and social life in a very gentle way while in the realm of the fantastic Graeme Base has also justly gained  an international reputation when he burst onto the publishing scene just a few years’ ago with his stunning creations in Animalia. For those a little older there can be few who have not been moved to tears and laughter with John Heffernan’s writings about the life of his dogs. Anthony Hill has retrieved history with his stories of a young soldier in World War I. Young readers can only be brought to a sense of wonder at what is now a foreign world to them and yet one that keeps repeating itself forever.

As for older readers my money goes to writers such as Garth Nix with his powerful fantasy novels that are much richer, deeper and more life sustaining than Harry Potter. Again there is beauty and enriching poetry in Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori, set in a magical Japanese kingdom. The list of books that need no apology for existence is almost overwhelming. The tragedy is that many of these books have a limited shelf life and so we find that old “classics” and modern series books that are bought by the bin gain prominence at the supermarket and at the front door of book chains.

There is nothing wrong with series books and the older classics for they fill a need. Series books that are written to a formula often encourage the reluctant reader to keep going but if the reader stops there their life also becomes limited. To read series books and nothing else is rather like constantly eating short-order food - ultimately such a diet is unhealthy. The classics on the other hand might well appeal to the older generations who found them in childhood but have not found anything new since. Many are past their use-by date and if today’s generation is given them, then the books are likely to sit on a shelf in a dark corner of the bedroom.

Finally, I want to point out that presentation will make or break a book. Repackaging has become an art form in itself and so with a little care books that have found their mark in the past will become alive once more.

Australia’s children are today blessed with almost too many goodies when it comes to books but unless adults point the way few will find their way to their rightful homes. All we will be left with is The Saddle Club, Harry Potter and Black Beauty.

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About the Author

John Cohen is editor and publisher of Reading Time, journal of the Children's Book Council of Australia.

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