The children’s book is an interesting beast: part learning tool for schools, part entertainment medium. In the eyes of many children I’m sure it too often struggles to break free of the label of ‘work’, and the more time I spend in the world of children’s books and the more hours I spend in schools, the clearer this becomes. As far as I can see, the main barrier to young children reading books for entertainment is simply because it is so associated with education.
Watching my young niece pick up and love picture books even before she can read (and before she’s at school), it’s easy to see it doesn’t start out that way. A good picture book is a lot of fun, and also provides a great opportunity for parents and children to spend worthwhile time together. A picture book is a visual feast, much better plotted and executed than most cartoons or films.
But then, as soon as you go to school, words become synonymous with work and pictures fade slowly into non-existence. Books eventually become pages and pages of, dare I say it, words. The fun of words surely disappears as you realise they’re a barrier to you going out to play. Reading and writing are key elements of learning and growth, and rightly form the bedrock of schooling, but it’s a shame so many young folk will grow up associating words with pain and boredom.
For pictures, it’s a different matter entirely. They retain their excitement, and are never linked with work. After a certain age, pictures in school books are relegated to less important beings than words, and anything not related to words is seen as a breath of fresh air, a break from work. This loss for schooling is a win win win situation for pictures and visual media. After looking at words all day in school, I used to love coming home to watch cartoons or play on my computer.
This continued enjoyment and excitement of picture-based media rears its head when I visit schools. I regularly talk to children who are wowed by my (slim) drawing abilities. Interestingly, I never meet a child who says ‘wow you can write’. Why is this? Do children think anyone can write but not anyone can draw? My conclusion to this is that children don’t care much for words and the art of language.
So how do you get children to read when they care little for building blocks of books? Rather obviously, I can’t help feeling that it’s the stories that count. When words are so commonplace and so associated with work, the story is the main draw for a child. That’s why no-one comments on the quality of writing, and that’s why quality of writing so often doesn’t matter when it comes to a bestseller. Words are, possibly, unimportant. (Sure, as I writer I know that excitement and fun is linked to the quality of writing, but children don’t see that.)
Books for children should be everything TV and computer games are. They have to compete, and to do that they need to break free of the classroom and the rule of words. Children’s books should focus on sparking a lifelong love of stories, because a love and understanding of words and writing will come later.
So here’s what we should do. Let’s focus on making books for the children, not for adults. They don’t want our boring adult-leaning political polemics, or essays on history or religion, they want fun and enjoyment. Let’s add more illustrations, more excitement, more jokes and silliness. Let’s remember that, ultimately, children’s books are a form of entertainment.