Why We Need to Read Children’s Literature

In a session with MA students of education a few weeks ago, we asked one group to perform a small role play of a scene from a book that they were reading. They were enjoying themselves so much that stopping them was next to impossible. We gently intervened with gestures, then words, and finally had to outright request them to stop – but to no avail. Both the group performing, as well as the rest of the students watching the play, were having an excellent time.

The book they were reading was a picture book for ‘ages 6+’, called I Will Save My Land (written by Rinchin and illustrated by Sagar Kolwankar). Reading it would take an average adult reader (fluent in the language of the publication) roughly 15-20 minutes. It falls most certainly in the category of ‘children’s literature’ – though the meaning of that category is debatable.

When adults think of children’s literature, there is still an unfortunate tendency to think of the genre as simplistic, meaningless, or intended to pass on moral values, and in the most direct way possible: with a line at the end of the story saying “the moral is…”

But that isn’t the case.

A simple story does not mean a simplistic story

On being asked at the start of the session why literature is important, the postgraduate students rattled off answers with expected ease. However, when we asked them to actually read certain books and then share how they felt about them, they surprised us all in the room – most of all themselves – with the insights they had. This, suddenly, was not a group of adult educators discussing how a particular book could be read with children – this was a group of people reading and being enthralled by some wonderful books.

This Moose Belongs To Me – an illustrated story by the acclaimed children’s book author Oliver Jeffers – is an even shorter read. It’s a short story with vivid illustrations in the author’s characteristic style. The group assigned to read it spent so much time reading and analysing it that they weren’t able to complete the task assigned to them: to write the story from an alternative perspective. This is an activity that most school language teachers would be familiar with handing out to their students, but the group of educators-in-training struggled with it – recognising that the task isn’t as simple as they initially assumed, while simultaneously acknowledging the complexity of the story the activity was based on.

Also read: Wandering in Wonderland: Happy Alice Day

The ostensibly simple story of a young boy who believes he owns a moose brought out issues of ownership, property, relationships, and even names and the power of naming. It is tempting to think that these are adult takes on a children’s story, but having read this book with groups from kindergarten upwards, we’ve found that everyone resonates with its themes, and engages just as deeply, albeit with varying levels of social sciences jargon in their analysis.

Perspectives, genre, and illustration

Some would argue that children’s literature is a genre unto itself, while others would hold that there are several genres within children’s literature. In either case, it is often distinct from ‘regular’ literature. One major aspect of this is images and illustrations – often stories can be told at two levels simultaneously, and there are sometimes even two different stories being told at once when we look at picture books. In some cases, the images are depicting exactly what the author-illustrator team wishes to convey – which is in some ways a different art form altogether, straddling the line between the written word and visual art. In others, the images add details that the written word never touched upon at all.

One group in the workshop was reading a story called Kali and the Rat Snake (written by Zai Whitaker and illustrated by Srividya Natarajan) – where the illustrations affected them more than the story itself. Another was visibly shaken by their experience of reading Munnu, an autobiographical graphic novel by Malik Sajad about his life as a boy and young man in Kashmir, expressing how the images (even if nothing else) showed them aspects of life in Kashmir that they had never even imagined before. Critical education and engaged literacy are not the responsibilities of weighty works of non-fiction alone; cartoons, graphic novels, illustrated books all have their role to play.

Understanding our children – what they read, what they enjoy

The fact is that most of our children are readers, or need to be (for the demands of the education system if nothing else). And like with anything else we want our children to do, they need to enjoy doing it. Enjoyment of reading doesn’t come only from books with happy endings, it comes from books that tell good stories. If we relegate reading to perusing a set of textbooks daily, there is little surprise in learning that many children don’t like reading, that in fact, they detest it.

Like with any media and art form, books and stories also keep changing. To know what a new generation enjoys, as well as to enjoy it ourselves, we need to engage with the form. Along with that, specifically, when it comes to books, as adults and as educators, in particular, we need to engage more with children’s literature, because in most cases, we’re the ones deciding what our children read. To be able to do this well, we need to read the literature ourselves.

Mirrors and windows

As a 25-year-old, I read the story Gone Grandmother (by Chatura Rao, and illustrated by Krishna Bala Shenoi) shortly after my own grandmother’s passing. The book unlocked emotions that I had repressed in a way that no other conversations, including therapy, had managed to do. I saw myself in Nina, the young protagonist of the story while being given insights into a Nani-grandchild relationship completely different from my own, and equally moving.

Books are remarkable in that they tell stories, but they leave so much for us to add to those stories. We give the characters their shape or their voice. We choose the pace at which we read and absorb the story, and we can go back to it as many times as we would like. Stories offer us a reflection of ourselves and our own lives, and in doing so give us new ways to process the happenings in and around us – books act as mirrors. Books also act as windows – glimpses into lives, cultures, and places that we are not familiar with. These glimpses help us learn to empathise, they help us learn to socialise with those not like ourselves, and they show us new possibilities.

In the stories we read in the session with the MA students in a very posh campus in Bangalore, we had stories from Kashmir, from Chhattisgarh, from the northern reaches of the North American continent, from a basti in Bhopal and from the forests of the Western Ghats. We had protagonists from diverse settings, including a young person who the world tries to force into the role of a ‘boy’, an artist who risks arrest with every cartoon he publishes, a young girl and her grandmother fighting to save land no one thinks they have any right to, and many others besides. In all these stories, we learnt something new, while remembering something familiar.

Dhruva Desai is an educator, currently based in Himachal. He’s working on a research project at Azim Premji University, as part of an Interest Group for Compassion, Dialogue, and Justice. 

Featured image credit: Tulika Books/Amazon; Editing: LiveWire