How do we construct children? Christopher Meyers* asked yesterday at a panel on Picture Books Through the Ages hosted by Politics and Prose. On first read the topic of the panel- picture books through the ages- could be expected to be light and fluffy. Children books. Picture books. Beautiful pictures. Lovely stories. Happy memories of our childhood. Luckily this is not the direction the panel went. In fact, it was pointed out that Goodnight Moon, arguably the world's most quintessential children's book, was actually a pretty dark book if you think about it, and in being dark it helps children struggle with their fear of the dark and even death (goodnight air, goodnight nothing).
The authors and publishers quickly jumped into the discussion of how we get books into the hands of all readers, but especially our neediest readers- the kids who don't have easy access to books. Like with seemingly so many things, the best quality books are the most expensive, leaving the quick and easily accessible books- the Doritos and cheap candy bar books- as our children's first introductions to owning and interacting with texts. Cheaply published books from movies, adapted from TV shows, or just books that required little imagination and were easy to publish are put in shopping carts as an afterthought- impulse book buying. Our kids, many kids, aren't getting to own their very own version of a nice hard covered book. They aren't getting to interact with a story over and over again- a story they own- a story they can examine the pictures, re-write in their heads, connect to, think about, and then carry around like a teddy bear. Books are expensive, and picture books- the good ones- the meaningful, thought provoking ones- are not in many family's budgets. As a teacher, particularly a teacher in a low income school, I'm willing to bet you've watched one of your students walk around with a book as though it is his teddy bear. Not reading it, but holding it because the mere presence of the book is a reminder of the child's connection to the story.
Constructing children was an idea that Meyers came back to repeatedly. As adults we decide what books we deem 'kid worthy'. Are the darker, brooding books worthy of our children? Are we comfortable allowing our children to struggle with ideas in children's literature, or do we lean towards the whimsy, trying to keep our kids innocent and carefree? I admit I've actually hidden all the Disney Princess books in my house. If I'm honest I will admit that I'm desperately trying to construct my daughter's childhood to not include these characters. (We'll see how long I can keep this up.)This question itself could be an entire thesis, yet I realize that the mere idea of being able to construct a childhood is a luxury.
We get to make these decisions (good or bad) for our children in middle to upper middle class households. We have the disposable income to buy quality books. Many of our children aren't given the opportunity to get their hands on even the most whimsical books. And, like the authors and publishers discussed yesterday, those children often need the quality books the most. Reading may not be something they do often outside of school. If they are going to become life long readers they need to have a reason to They need access to books that make them reflect on their own lives, books that help them feel connected to the world, give them something to relate to, or just give them a reason to laugh.
It was heartbreaking to hear the authors themselves struggle with this, listening to them reflect on knowing that their work isn't getting into the hands of the readers who need their books the most. Yet it also made me hopeful. This isn't just a problem we're fighting against as teachers. If others see it- if the writers and publishers acknowledge it- we're further along the path of solving the problem.
There are programs that get books into the hands of kids, and some of those programs even get good books into the hands of kids. But we need more.
The librarian at the Think Tank did amazing things with her program when she shifted the focus of the library from protecting the books to getting books into kids' hands. She dropped the limit of how many books children could check out. Suddenly, they could check out as many as they could carry. Any book they dropped leaving the library had to be left behind, but otherwise they could walk out with books stacked to their chins (and they did). Returning books was no longer a barrier to getting to check out new books either. She kept close tabs on them, contacted parents to let them know books were overdue, and had children work off their lost book fines. But nothing was going to stop them from taking home new books every week. Teachers were never held to returning books on time either. If we wanted to check out books and keep them all year we could. She knew that in our classroom libraries they'd be getting read and re-read as much as they would in the general library. She even changed our school book fair, moving away from the traditional Scholastic book fair to a different publisher who sold more paper back books. This was huge- suddenly our kids could afford to buy the books being sold at school.
She got books into the hands of kids.It took all of us to step back and examine our practices and realize that our traditional practices weren't necessarily helping our kids read. And it worked. Our kids were reading. Constantly. Yes books got lost and never returned, but careful budgeting for lost books and the understanding that books are truly getting read makes up for the financial loss. It's easy to keep pristine books safely on the shelf if no one is reading them.
*My auditory memory isn't up to journalistic quality. I believe this is the direct quote, but I am not 100% sure.