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Why I Read Children’s Books

February 8, 2013
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Books are one of the most important things in my life. This has always been true. A passionate English major, my shelves are lined with works by Milton, Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Austen, Dickens, Chaucer, Dafoe, Hardy, James, Twain, Eliot, Brontë, Thackeray, Trollope. I have a shelf of Tolstoy, Chekov, Dostoyevsky, and Chernyshevsky. There are Marquez, Delillo, Lahari, Barth, Eugenides, Agee. You get the picture. But with only a few exceptions, most of the books I’ve read this year are children’s books, and I’m better off for it.

I started reading children’s chapter books a few years ago when my avid reader’s reading level far outstripped her age. I wanted to make sure the books she was reading were appropriate for her. And I wanted to be able to suggest books I thought she’d love. Those motivations have changed as she’s gotten older and has become adept at choosing for herself. We don’t always choose the same books to read, but when we do, we have great conversations.

Another reason I read children’s books is that I spend a lot of my time distributing books to children with Books Are Magic. Since we give books to kids who need them, I felt like I should know more about modern children’s books so that I could answer questions and make good suggestions. Reading a lot of children’s books has made me much better at helping kids find the right book, and it has been great to engage the kids I meet about books we’ve both read.

But here’s the other part—I think the books being written for children right now are better than the books being written for adults. When I’m reading contemporary adult fiction, I am frequently frustrated and underwhelmed. There are exceptions—certainly there are some great writers writing now. But I have never in my life abandoned so many books halfway because I was just sick of the plot, the characters, and the writing. I am so tired of reading about how contemporary culture is devoid of meaning, how we are addicted to unhealthy choices, how corrupted and debased we all are. I’ve read it so many times. It was fresh when DeLillo wrote White Noise, but that was more than two decades ago.

I find the books being written for children now to be more inventive, original, creative, evocative, and probing than many of the adult novels I’ve read in the last ten years. The narration and prose of books like Newbery-winner The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate) or May B. (Caroline Starr Rose) are fresh and original. Writers like Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard, The Kite Fighters, When My Name Was Keoko, A Long Walk to Water, and others) make pain, loss, and yearning palpable, yet manage to inspire with power of the human spirit. Had I not been reading children’s books, I would have missed Grace Lin, whose Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t have discovered the Mysterious Benedict Society (Trentan Lee Stewart) which wins for sheer inventiveness. I wouldn’t have read Kate DiCamillo’s stunning The Magician’s Elephant or her transcendent The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. I would have missed Kate Messner (The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., Marty McGuire, Capture the Flag), whose breadth of style and subject are truly impressive, all delivered with wit and an authenticity that makes her one of my child’s favorites. I would have slept more if I hadn’t discovered Percy Jackson (Rick Riordan) or Septimus Heap (Angie Sage), but I would have lost the thrill of being compelled to keep turning pages instead of going to bed. I wouldn’t have been captivated by When You Reach Me or Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead, whose plots and prose are simply breathtaking. And I would never have read Fever 1793 or Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, whose writing is simultaneously visceral, genuine, and beautiful. I could easily list fifty more books here that I’ve read and loved by authors who are writing right now. (Not to mention the magnificent books and somewhat older books I’ve also read.)

The vibrant tradition of children’s literature is alive and well–and well worth reading. If you just pick up something like Three Times Lucky (Sheila Turnage) to read with your child, lucky you. You will certainly share something special together, maybe have some great conversations, and you might just find a book that speaks to your heart as well.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2013 6:14 PM

    Thank you, friend.

  2. Lea R. permalink
    February 16, 2013 8:42 AM

    …And there you have just rounded out my reading list for the next few months! Great post.

    And, Caroline, we’re buying May B. today. Can’t wait!

    – Lea

  3. Sue Y permalink
    April 15, 2013 8:32 PM

    Wonderful article. I feel the same way about children’s books and have loved several of the books you mentioned.

  4. April 15, 2013 10:28 PM

    Thank you for your great comments. I could not have said it any better, but just as passionately.

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