I am related to one of the most precocious eleven year olds on the planet. My littlest brother Nathan is a goof, a tease, often annoying, swiftly leaving the cute “baby” stage in the dust, and far too smart for his own good.
Nathan loves geography. He can find countries I didn’t even know existed and assess how current the map is by identifying which countries have changed, been formed, or no longer exist.
He is also a little military strategist, who owns about five different versions of the endlessly complicated boardgame Axis and Allies and loves spending five hours at a time challenging whatever friend or relative he can coerce to an intense battle for supremacy.
My brother is a fuzzy, little, blond intellectual and he continues to charm and amaze his family, among others, with his unusual, clever turns of phrase.
Nathan loves to read, which is a large part of why he knows so much. The more anyone reads, the more he or she adds to vocabulary and general knowledge. For a child, though, it is essential. Children can absorb so much more than adults. That’s why a child can so much more quickly learn a new language than an adult can (this is why my children will be tri-lingual by age three).
But for a child to be a good reader, he needs good books. Unfortunately for today’s kids, the selection of quality modern children’s books is slim. Yes, there are quite a few books out there (mostly the old ones), but it is hard to find the really good ones without having to sort through a whole lot of bad ones.
One of the chief problems that I have run into when sorting through children’s books is the “dumbing down” mentality. Books written for children often use much simpler language than they need to and worse, much simpler ideas. A child can handle a lot more than many adults give him or her credit for. If children are not challenged to rise to new levels, they won’t, and we will have another generation of teens (and then adults) who would rather “just go see the movie version.” The most horrific example of this I have ever seen is the Junie B Jones series. In these books about a five year old, told from her point of view, the author consciously uses terrible grammar and sentence structure because “that’s how they talk, right?” I have never heard children speak as badly as Junie B does, but they might start if they keep reading these books!
Nathan often looks at books that are targetting his age range and says, “This is for kids” in a disparaging tone that clearly indicates what he thinks of the intellectual value of that particular literature. And he is right. It’s not necessarily that Nathan is so much smarter than any other kid his age, but that the books are not enough to stimulate his mind. The phrase “this is for kids” ought to mean something good, but often means something immature and useless to anyone sensible.
The test of good children’s literature, in my opinion, is that which can be read as enthusiastically by an adult as a child. While a children’s book may require simpler language than, say, a heavy tome on systematic theology, a child can still have quite a large vocabulary thrown at him. The words he doesn’t know can be looked up.
A good children’s book read as a child will gain new meaning for the adult reader. There are plenty of “mature” themes that a child can learn from that do not require the world’s idea of “mature content”. It does not have to be dirty to be grown up. Most of you have probably watched a Pixar film or two. They are clean, wholesome family fun. Children can’t resist the characters and action in Toy Story or Up or The Incredibles. These movies are so much fun. And yet, if you watch the different members of your family viewing this movie, you will notice that the adults laugh at dialogue and action that the children don’t seem to notice and sometimes tear up at meaningful moments that children can’t quite appreciate yet. The layers upon layers of story are slowly revealed as the audience matures.
The ultimate tragedy is thinking that the books read as a child are something you should grow out of instead of something you should grow into.
A childlike book is not a “childish” one. CS Lewis commented on Paul’s verse about putting away childish things by saying this:
“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
A good story for children retains the wonder and joy, but not at the expense of depth and meaning. I think one of my most delightful college experiences was my class on children’s literature. I read Winnie the Pooh for the first time. Yes, I had seen the movie, but had seen no reason to pick up the book. It’s for children, after all.
If you haven’t read it, do so. It is offered for free in the iBooks program and probably in many other digital readers. Or you can do as I did and purchase a beautiful hardbound copy to read it as books were meant to be read. The story is so endearing and lovely and the author is extremely witty in that British sort of way. It is a book that fascinates children and enthralls adults.
In a better, more literature-minded world, my brother Nathan should be able to pick up books that are targetting his age group and enjoy them thoroughly. As he continues to read one book after another and he grows from youth to young adult, he ought to be able to go back to his favorite books from these early years and reread them, smiling at his favorite parts and seeing something new. As he grows older and reads those same books to his children, he should not have to read them just for the next generation – they should continue to work on his thoughts and emotions in new ways even as he shares his old, old favorites with an eagerly listening new generation of readers.