childrens literature, four children reading

To elaborate upon a prior piece that we’d published about the history of children’s literature, we thought it necessary to get a sense of the present and future of the canon of works that have captivated young hearts and inspired young minds. 

An enriching afternoon spent with Ms. Barbara Kinkead, a children’s librarian with over thirty years’ experience who presently works as the Assistant Director of Library and Information Services at the St. Mark’s School of Texas’ Lower School Library in Dallas, allowed us to develop a more comprehensive sense of not only the evolution of children’s literature during the 20th century, but also the components of a successful children’s book and the merits that active, young readers can gain via their literary pastimes. 

While children’s literature may be, naturally, aimed at children, it is definitely not simplistic child’s play; far from being a monolithic, formulaic, codified genre, it is instead a supple, ever-mutable collection of kaleidoscopic narratives that must simultaneously delight and educate its readers while seeking innovation and relatability.

Children’s versus “Young Adult” Literature

Among the problems inherent to the study and discussion of children’s literature, demonstrated during our discussion with Ms. Kinkead, were the challenges stemming from the very heading of “children’s literature” itself. For one, who is defined as a child: do pre-adolescents and adolescents count, or are they part of the coveted young adult demographic so targeted by publishers, movie producers, and television execs alike?  If “young adult” is to be considered a separate entity, then what is its rapport with children’s literature?

In Ms. Kinkead’s experience, a lot of the young people who would be classified as part of the young adult demographic actually consume literature and other media geared towards adults; it’s actually children younger than the young adult age who generate most of the demand for this specific market.  Similarly, Ms. Kinkead remarked that with a few notable exceptions, it’s mostly female readership that is receptive to young adult works.  “This could be reflective of how boys are raised, in general terms,” Ms. Kinkead reflected. “They are asked to be tougher, to be less emotional.” This kind of mindset would not necessarily lend itself well to the appreciation of works that pile on layer after layer of familial hardship, emotional strain, and personal drama.

Boys, she observed, prefer nonfiction books about World War II, weapons, cars, the sciences, and famous figures (the presidents and Steve Jobs were among the popular reads at the Lower School library). That said, Ms. Kinkead was quick to note that at St. Marks, “Twilight” enjoyed great popularity among the younger student body, and many students opt to read “Number the Stars”—the 1989 tale about how a young girl and her family flee from Nazi-occupied Copenhagen—for their assignments.

Given the rather tepid reception that young adult literature receives among Ms. Kinkead’s students, the remainder of our conversation focused primarily, although not exclusively, on children’s picture books.  While picture books do share a generally younger audience and a uniform format (i.e. the inclusion of pictures in text), major differences in books’ styles, structures, and genres allow much room for keen observation and inviting discussion.

Literature and Picture Books: Children’s Book Awards

Of the numerous accolades the American Library Association doles out every year, two are probably most familiar to young readers and their parents: the Newbery and the Caldecott Awards. The Newbery Award—named in honor of John Newbery, the author of what common consensus holds as the first children’s book, 1744’s “A Little Pretty Pocket Book”—is “awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” based on the book’s “interpretation of theme; presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization; development of plot; delineation of characters; delineation of setting; and appropriateness of style.”

Conversely, the Caldecott Award—as the biography of its namesake, illustrator Randolph Caldecott, suggests—is given to “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children” displaying “excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed” and “excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept…[and] of delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood, or information through the pictures.”

The American Library Association highlights that neither award is for “didactic intent or popularity” (Association of Library Service to Children, 4-6). This caveat harkens back to the debate that our previous children’s literature article highlighted on the primacy of teaching versus the primacy of distraction in these books. When asked to weigh in on this debate that even the likes of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau couldn’t conclusively resolve, Ms. Kinkead reasoned that while distraction is certainly an important element to children’s picture books, “a well-written book will teach you a lot regardless. Even the art of writing.”

What do the most well-known children’s books teach us? With these considerations and perspectives in mind, we began an odyssey through stacks and stacks of award-receiving books from throughout the years. We began with the earliest of Newbery recipients, “The Story of Mankind” (1927)*, which tells the story of humankind’s development from cavemen until present and underscores how “ideas, movements, and people are more important than dates” (Association for Library Service to Children, 84).  Much like today’s youth, children throughout the 20th century have been mesmerized by books that treat history in some capacity; as such, several works of historical fiction have received Newbery awards for their contributions to American literature for youth.  For example, “The White Stag” (1931) combines facts and legends to tell the story of the Huns’ invasion of Hungary; “Johnny Tremain” (1944) recounts a fourteen year-old’s experience in the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Lexington; and the “Witch of Blackbird Pond” (1959) tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials.

There are now a plethora of various types of children’s literature. “Throughout the years,” Ms. Kinkead remarked, “writing has become more sophisticated, because authors realize children can handle it. Children can even be more critical than adults.” As a result, she noted that over the decades, children’s authors have “branched out into so many genres,” and the inclusion of the aforementioned works and numerous others in the list of Newbery recipients highlights the difficulty of lumping several disparate works together under the heading of “children’s literature.” This includes as “Tales from Silver Lands” (1925) and “Shen of the Sea” (1926), which give the reader glimpses into retellings of South American and Chinese folk tales respectively; “Bridge to Terabithia” (1978), a fictional narrative that includes the death of one of its young protagonists; and Beverly Cleary’s “Dear Mr. Henshaw” (1984), which takes place amidst the backdrop of divorce. As such, it is important to understand that the notion of “children’s literature” is quite flexible and inclusive, determined more by its audience than by any kind of compliance with an established set of touchstones and edicts.

Caldecott winners evince similar diversity and variation.  The first winner, “Animals of the Bible” (1938), features black and white pictures which may not be able to draw the attention of today’s readers as strongly as the more modern pieces “Black and White” (1991) and “Locomotive” (2014), with their interesting plays with typeface and texture. According to Ms. Kinkead, for children to respond well to illustrations, they must actually reflect the text. “They take much more to imagery that is not abstract,” she informed me.  If visual familiarity and recognition are the most important factors in whetting and maintaining a young reader’s curiosity and interest, illustrators are endowed with a wide range of possibilities within which they can exercise their craft.

For one, their illustrations can supplement non-traditional texts, such as “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” (2008), a 526-page book (which author Brian Selznick himself describes as “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things”) that, unlike the vast majority of other Caldecott winners or picture books, would almost be impossible to read aloud to an audience, yet alone in one sitting.  Similarly, illustrators can use the very images they create to convey changing attitudes towards cultural groups and societal inclusion.  One need only glance at the hyper-stereotyped depictions of slaves in “Abraham Lincoln” (1940) and the protagonists of “Snowy Day” (1963) – whose innovation is precisely in the inconsequentiality of their race—to see this point, quite literally, illustrated.

Both the textual content and visual aids that constitute picture books are in constant states of flux and are flexible enough to incorporate almost anything. With this in mind, then, what does the future hold for children’s literature? Ms. Kinkead offered some interesting observations and hypotheses to help answer this question.

Contemporary Trends in Literature and Publishing

The inclusion of motley genres, styles, and themes under the rubric of children’s literature has been a constant refrain of this article. Underscoring this flexible categorization is the rise of the graphic novel as a means to retell and recast existing pieces of literature. In what may seem like anathema to many, Shakespearean classics, Moby Dick, and even A Wrinkle in Time have all been republished as graphic novels, thereby making themselves more available, accessible, and digestible to younger generations of readers.

Moreover, classic works of literature can be remarketed for children to include margin notes and drawings illustrating facets of stories’ historical details; the Whole Story series, for instance, has issued a series of books which provide such supplementary information to guide readers in their complete understanding of works and their contextual milieus. Similarly, such hallmarks of children’s literature such as the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Boxcar Children have seen their cover decorations changed over the course of multiple editions to ensure their appeal remains constant from generation to generation. Otherwise, children—who indeed judge books by their covers and can be quick to dismiss what may appear to them as outdated—would be much less inclined to immerse themselves in the same worlds that nourished and enlivened their parents’ imaginations.

While previously-existing stories are rebranded and reimaged with new covers and layouts, some new stories are being disseminated through completely novel media, most notably as digital books. Ms. Kinkead was quick to mention that a growing number of non-fiction, scientific-themed books have been especially quick to latch onto this new mode of consumption and enjoyment. Granted, the tactile pleasure of a book is lost, but readers are still able to jot notes on electronic pages, thanks to the enabling software.

All the same, an important question arises with the growing popularity of digital media: is reading from a screen the same as reading from a page? As more and more schools opt for “TV-” or “computer-turn-off” weeks, are digital books to be treated as virtual learning aids or as contraband? The answer is ultimately left for individual instructors and administrations to decide, but Ms. Kinkead sees nothing wrong with allowing children to engage with digital texts. After all, children are still engaging their minds, and the stimuli they are receiving through the screen are quite comparable to those they would be receiving through a book.

It was interesting for me to learn that the presence of LGBT individuals may be the final frontier; the final taboo for children’s books to overcome.  For a genre that includes such “adult” topics as suicide, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and alcoholism, among others, it is noteworthy that at best, there are only a handful of American children’s titles that broach the subject of parallel sexual orientations and members of such communities.  Most of the existing literature centers around such themes as “dad has a roommate” or “I have two mommies”; protagonists’ own awakenings and realizations of sexual identity rarely fall into the scheme of things. It would thus seem like children’s literature as a whole would have a lot to gain from an uptick in LGBT representation and validation; given the suppleness of the canon as a whole, such an uptick seems incredibly feasible within the near future.

The Intrinsic Significance of Reading to Young Minds

At the end of the day, why is children’s literature important? As mentioned earlier, even the most amusing tale can serve to educate children, and apt readers reap certain advantages earlier and in bigger doses than their less bookish peers. The didactic elements of literature need not be relegated to issues of morals and ethics: after all, works written in verse can help children recognize phonemes, map sounds to letters, and understand rhyme, stress, and syllabification, developing their future vocabulary acquisition capabilities. In addition, as this article in the Chronicle Review demonstrates, fiction helps bolster readers’ socio-cognitive sensitivity, inference-making abilities, and perceptual awareness. 

Consequently, children exposed to this pattern of thinking at earlier ages develop these synapses and cognitive abilities more sharply than their peers. Finally, children exposed to literature at an earlier age become more familiar with such archetypes as trickster figures (e.g. Brer Rabbit) and heroes from American lore (e.g. Johnny Appleseed). This early exposure to literature provides children a much firmer foundation in their outlining cultural landscape, and they will have more frames of references for interpreting and perceiving their surroundings.

As children are experts at mimicking their surroundings, it becomes all the more important for adults to demonstrate the importance of books. Of course, parents can always read to their kids, and this does children a world of good. Additionally, it is good for children to see their grown-up role models reading themselves and going to bookstores. This way, they are provided with activities and habits to emulate as they realize that enchanting, fascinating worlds are simultaneously within their reach and in the innermost recesses of their precocious, absorbent minds.

This article was originally published on and written by Evan Alterman.

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*Years in parentheses indicate the year for which a given work received a Newbery or a Caldecott award; thus, their year of publication is one year earlier.