Martha Brockenbrough from Encarta contacted me this week for an article she is writing, "Are Kids' Books Boring?" It's a fascinating subject, and I can't wait to read her entire article on Encarta.com. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts that came out of our interview:
When it comes to books for kids, do adults and kids love different things? If so, why do you think that is?
Ideally, a good children's book should also appeal to adults because it strikes some universal nerve. It will have a gripping story, a sprinkling of humor, characters we care about, issues that are relevant and haunting. The key, though, is that the book should FIRST appeal to kids. There are relevant, haunting, wonderfully written books that appeal to adults but are simply not kid-friendly, even if they are labeled as kids' books. The major award lists are mostly populated by books like this. Visit any English classroom in the country and you will find these books being taught in the curriculum, because the teachers love them (or more often, the teachers don't have time to read them, but the books are on a literary award list, and so they must be safe choices). These books become part of the literary canon for generations. Look at the bored faces of the students, and you will see that this is a shame. According to one site, 58% of US adults never read another book after high school. If you look at what we are asking students to read in middle school and high school, it's no wonder.
Yes, there are children's books that do not appeal to adults. You probably won't find Captain Underpants in the school curriculum, even though it is wildly popular (and in my opinion, brilliant). Eragon is also huge with young readers, though personally I can't get into it. But if a book appeals to kids, it doesn't really matter whether I like it or not. Conversely, if I as a middle-aged adult love a 'children's' book that doesn't appeal to my students, that's probably not a book I should be using in my classroom. I don't buy into the idea that a good book must be a difficult book, or that if something appeals to kids, it can't possibly have literary merit.
Are some books universally loved? Name a few...
Universal is a pretty big word. I can't think of a single book, however well-loved, that does not have its detractors. I'm a huge fan of Charlotte's Web, for instance. Neither of my sons can stand the book, much to my sorrow. Even Harry Potter, which has huge appeal for all ages, is not loved by everyone. I don't believe in making lists of "must read" books for exactly this reason. It's much more important that we have a broad range of books that appeal to many different kinds of readers. Ten 'must read' books for an eighth grade girl might be very different than ten 'must read' books for a fifth grade boy.
Are there some books that will never win awards, but will change kids' lives? Can we invent an award for those?
Any book that makes a child want to read more is a gold medal, five star book in my opinion. Do we need an award for that? No, because adults would run it, and adults would muck it up. Speaking as an author, the ultimate reward is when I get an email from a child saying, 'Your book was the first book I ever enjoyed,' or 'Your book makes me want to write my own stories.' That kind of feedback reminds me why I became a writer in the first place.