Do you remember your first experiences with books?
I remember reading books as a child, and occasionally going to the library, but I don’t remember much else about reading during my formative years. I don’t recall any of the texts I was given being particularly impactful for my personal or social development. And as much as I wish I could say that I remember liking the way books felt in my hands, or the way they smelled, or something along those lines, I can’t. My most positive memories about reading as a child are probably those of our monthly trips to our local bookstore, where I ended up working for a few years as a teenager. Those interactions with books at the bookstore, however, were pretty superficial: I flicked through the books on the shelves, enticed by brightly-coloured covers and catchy titles.
In a piece entitled ‘Can Your Best Friends Be Books?’ writer Eve Fairbanks describes her childhood experiences with books:
Recently, reading a Mary Oliver essay collection, I stumbled across a piece called ‘My Friend Walt Whitman.’ In it, she admits she had merely a few friends as a child in 1950s Ohio, and they were all dead. They were her favorite books.
We book lovers found that we actually missed the books themselves: the ones we had touched with our hands, the ones we had doodled in, the ones we had put up as shields against hard lessons of the world.
Throughout the piece, Fairbanks emphasizes the physicality of the books themselves, more than the texts contained within. She talks about getting lost in ‘dog-ears and water damage’ and, of one book in particular, ‘the tear on the shiny black cover, evidence it had been previously loved.’ Regular readers of this blog will know that this is the stuff I’m most interested in. Physicality, visuality, tactility. Understanding how form informs acts of meaning-making.
When you’re studying books, though, you can’t completely ignore the texts they contain; for Fairbanks, the texts permit access to other people’s thoughts and experiences. After all, books are fundamentally text containers, and texts are manifestations of authorial intent (however loosely you’d like to define intent). It is here where I will direct your attention to one of my current favourite children’s books: the 2016 A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers (a well-known children’s book author and illustrator) and by Sam Winston (a visual artist who does some pretty rad things with words). Here’s a YouTube read-along.
I am a child of books. I come from a world of stories, and upon my imagination I float. […] For this is our world we’ve made from stories. Our house is a home of invention where anyone at all can come, for imagination is free.
A Child of Books is all about how books can spark imagination, how reading texts can spur creativity and outside-the-box thinking. In an interview with Jeffers and Winston (video below), the book’s producers describe A Child of Books as an ‘ode to literature’ and ‘world of words’, respectively.
Storytelling is a huge part of the human identity, the authors argue. After all, Winston clarifies, we all need narratives to make sense of what goes on in the world around us. These narratives can be overarching, or they can be subsidiary, but either way they contribute to a negotiation of the self in relation to the rest of society.
So, as we can see from just a quick look at A Child of Books, the texts contained within books can help us exercise our imaginations through exposure to new narratives that we can spin into the narratives we already use to make sense of our lives. We can combine the fictional into the everyday to give the world a little sparkle.
This is all well and good, and I don’t disagree. However, the majority of texts we actually read are not necessary those intended to spur imagination. Rather, they’re things like news articles, Google search results, ticket stubs, and posters. Certainly, many books are fictional, but fiction is only one genre. Even children do not read just fiction, although children’s literature does currently tend towards the fantastic. In school, for example, children are required to read textbooks on all things history, science, and math. They may read instructions for games they learn to play. They may see adults reading newspapers and non-fiction. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that, while fiction is great, children are expected to engage with a wide range of texts, across a wide range of genres.
Before this discussion moves to why children should learn to read, it may be helpful to examine what children’s literature actually is.
Is children’s literature written by children? Nope, not usually. Is children’s literature written about children? Sure, a lot of the time. But what really distinguishes children’s literature as such is that it is written ostensibly for children. I’ve put ‘ostensibly’ there because sometimes books that may be advertised as children’s books may actually touch on some rather adult themes – take Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, for example.
Indeed, many adults read children’s books not only for children’s enjoyment, but for their own.
So, like any genre, the lines are can get a bit blurry. All you really need to know is that, unlike other genres that may depend upon the content of the text, children’s literature fundamentally depends upon the relationships of that genre with its particular reading audience: children. And I know, ‘children’ is a broad term. Eh.
But why do children need their own genre anyway? Why do they need to learn how to read at all?
These may seem like stupid questions, but we really do take for granted how integral reading is in our everyday lives. Yes, we read for pleasure and enjoyment. However, reading also allows us to perpetuate cultural and literary heritage; we learn about where we come from when we read history and science textbooks, and we return to similar stories that people hundreds of years ago consumed when we read authors like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Then there’s the commonly-held belief that reading contributes to personal development and exposure to new knowledge and ideas that may challenge our personal viewpoints. There’s also the commonly-held belief that reading nurtures and expands our imaginations, permitting us access to other worlds and experiences that may otherwise be inaccessible (see the above mention of Child of Books). Also, while reading is often regarded as a solitary activity, for children’s books in particular the act of reading often entails sharing time together, contributing to the development of relationships between those doing the reading and those being read to. There are, in short, many reasons why children should learn to read, and children’s literature in particular makes this activity accessible by appealing to children through particular linguistic and visual features, as well as through particular story themes and characters.
The most important reason why children need to learn how to read, however, is so that they may participate in everyday social life. The Western world runs on literacy: our laws are all written down; our news is often conveyed through words; we text and email constantly; we vote using little paper slips that we have to read, and then write on. These things all depend on literacy. Indeed, if one can’t read, one is isolated from many of our social institutions. Trying to get a job, an apartment, a passport, a bank account? All particularly difficult things to do for those who lack the necessary reading and writing skills.
So, while I may not remember much about reading as a child, I somehow grew up literate. And not just literate – I actually like reading! Fancy that. I’m thanking children’s books, and those monthly trips to our local bookstore. Surrounded by text from a young age, I was fortunate enough to be constantly exposed to the new knowledge and ideas afforded by one’s ability to read. I guess I would call myself a child of books.