Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Children's Books


Terry Shames here, answering our question of the week: 

Do you ever read children’s books (not including reading them to your children)? Do you think children’s books have changed from when you were a child? 

No, I don't read children's books--at least not usually. But at Left Coast Crime in Vancouver a few years ago, some of us were exploring the area around the hotel and ran into a used bookstore. There, in plain sight was a book I had not seen since I was a little girl, living in small town in Texas where my only source of books was the library. It was “Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Nice Fat Policeman.” 

 I bought it if for no other reason than the title. Can you imagine a book being titled that these days? Maybe the nice “Plump” Police Officer? Or The Nice Police Officer Whose Weight is No One’s Business? How times have changed! And not necessarily for the worst. At any rate, I read the book and found it to be problematic in several ways, as so many older books are. There was a character described as The Magician who was seriously creepy, among other things. I don't know that I would want kids reading the book these days.

 I recently had to clean out my attic, and ran across children’s books that I had kept that were my favorites and my son’s favorites. Some of them I remembered reading night after night, sometimes two or three times. One in particular, “The Adventures of Puppy Cat,” by Mitchell Kriegman, I read so many times I could practically recite it, and grew to loathe it eventually. But if I tried to skip over any parts of it while I was reading, my son would immediately stop me and tell me what I had skipped. 

 The ones I particularly loved were books that had sly humor injected for adult consumption. I thought those writers were brilliant. “Mrs. Dunphy’s Dog,” by Catherine O’Neill was hilarious, not just for my son, but for me as well. 

The dog learned how to read because it was clear that Mrs. Dunphy was “in her cups” at night and he was bored. He learned to read the newspaper that fell from her lap—and it was clearly a tabloid newspaper. My son was entertained by the dog reading. I was entertained by WHAT he was reading. I was surprised to learn recently that one of my son’s favorite books, “The Runaway Bunny,” by Margaret Wise Brown, was still one of the books children love the most. 

I found this heartening, somehow. That at least the basics hadn’t changed. Which brings me to today’s children’s books. I buy books for my nephew’s son, who just this week turned 10. He is not a great reader, so I have struggled to find books he enjoys. Thank goodness for the Dogman series, by Dav Pilkey. 

A new take on super-heroes, the books are perfect for Grayson. I tried him on one of my son’s favorites, The Redwall series, and it fell flat. Those books are dense, with lots of description, and maybe he’ll turn to them when he’s older, but for now there’s Dogman. 

 Does this mean that kids want books that are less dense these days? That our fast-paced lives have spilled into children, and that they can’t concentrate on longer, more involved books? I seriously doubt it. I think it has more to do with the child, as it always has. Who knows why a kid takes to one book over another? In Grayson’s case, he’s a kinetic kid who loves building things and tearing them down. He likes computer games, but he also likes physical activities. It stands to reason that the books he would like feature busy protagonists, whether they are human or animal. 

 I am interested in how comic books have become all the rage, with both kids and adults. But there’s nothing new here. I loved comic books as a kid, and still remember some of them! It’s no surprise that there has been a resurgence of their popularity. But is it because kids don’t read as much, or because they are used to watching cartoons on TV? I suspect that there are kids in both camps, and that all kinds of books still reflect all kinds of kids. The important thing is that kids read. Whatever they read. The old ones or the new ones.


Josh Stallings said...

Terry you took me back, my boys got to choose a a book each night, and more nights than not they chose Where The Wild Things Are. It wasn't long before I had it memorized, but is I skipped even a word they let me know. I love the space around the ideas in good children's books, space for their imaginations to fill in. And I agree, "The important thing is that kids read. " not just so they grow up to buy books, but also readers make better thinkers.

Susan C Shea said...

Then there's manga, a deep passion for some middle-age kids and an obsession for some (young) adults.

mitchell said...

Dear Terry Shames, I'm utterly amazed that your son loved PuppyCat mainly because in all honesty I haven't heard of anyone actually reading my book! Also I don't mind apologizing to you - I hope you read these comments - this has the added value of being public (!). I myself had difficulty reading PuppyCat to my kids. Let alone three times a night! I had never written a children's book before and wasn't aware that it was way too long to sit and read in one sitting before sleep. I would have trimmed it down considerably and written 3! We were supposed to do three but it never went past that first one. That said I am grateful to your son. Something about it must have worked! On the other hand I'll say it was a very good idea, that Deborah Barrett, the illustrator came up with originally. She made a beautiful plush for it - that had unfortunately a very high cost....basically two plush in one. I'll also add that many many people have literally taken the idea and even title...ah such is life. PuppyCat...they can't all be perfect!