Why Kids Need Books

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By Ann Jacobus

As a children’s writer, I have often wondered about the difference between kid lit and adult lit. There are some obvious answers like the fact that kid lit is aimed at children. There is the possible presence of illustrations, and the use of a simpler vocabulary, although these differences disappear in middle grade and young adult literature.

Some say children’s literature is whatever children choose for themselves, including comic books and manga, and some stories written for adults (like TOM SAWYER).

Novelist Orson Scott Card said, “one can make a good case for the idea that children are often the guardians of the truly great literature of the world, for in their love of story and unconcern for stylistic fads and literary tricks, children unerringly gravitate toward truth and power.”*

Respected and award-winning author, Tim Wynne-Jones, summed up the difference this way: “Children’s literature is about learning how to get a grip. Adult literature is about letting go.”

Getting a grip.

Kid Lit is concerned with how we make our way in the world: how to differentiate shapes and letters, survive scary incidents like a new sibling, a friend’s betrayal, being stranded in the wilderness, a dissolving family, drugs, even zombies–fantasy and the paranormal, of course, are just the real world in disguise.  In other words, how to make sense of this difficult world and come of age to handle it on your own.

Then you can start learning to let go.

Most children’s writers remember learning to get a grip with great clarity and some fondness. Maybe this is why we are children’s writers. Many of us also struggled mightily with it somewhere along the way. In addition to wanting to tell stories and entertain our young readers, we are pulled to share our experience and knowledge with them. Our themes are generally optimistic: persevere; believe in yourself; do the right thing; make good choices; and that, as difficult as it is, the world is full of wonder and beauty.

Parents, teachers, and librarians help kids learn to get a grip, all day every day, in the flesh.  I am and have always been grateful to the professionals who were there for me—in Little Rock, Arkansas at Brady Elementary School, the teachers and librarians who put THE WITCH OF BLACKBERRY POND, THE HIGH KING, and ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS in my hands, not to mention indulging my hunger for ghost story collections. They actively encouraged me to access the world of imagination to experience outstanding stories that lived and breathed and shook me profoundly. The books allowed me respite from the “real” world, while at the same time gave me the chance to safely experience it in action. Through reading, I did learn about truth and the rules of power. And I learned how to get a grip.

I’m also grateful that teachers and librarians have been there for my kids, and taught them to read, think, analyze, and to dream. Finally, as a children’s writer, I want my stories and books, and those of my colleagues, put in the right hands by the significant adults in our children’s lives. Thanks for being advocates of reading and good children’s literature.

* Card, Orson Scott (November 5, 2001). “Hogwarts”. Uncle Orson Reviews Everything. Hatrack River Enterprises Inc.

Ann Jacobus has four children and writes and edits young adult and middle grade fiction. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce Frost January 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Ann, I love how you show children’s lit as a means by which children create meaning. They are always curious and seeking new understandings. Not only that, they are willing to fall into a story and experience it. And also, as you say, those adults (librarians, teachers, parents) play an important role in guiding these explorations.

Ann Jacobus January 14, 2011 at 8:46 am

Thanks, Bruce, and for being one of those pivotal adults and writers. Create meaning–yes! The power of literacy as the opportunity for kids (and adults) to rehearse the world at its worst and to enjoy it at its best.

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