Some Common Assumptions about Children’s Books

Over the years, as I’ve spoken with university students, parents, teachers, librarians, and other adults about children’s literature, I’ve been surprised by how often they agree with each other about it.  Listed here are a few ideas that we’ve heard expressed often enough to conclude that they strike many people as obvious.If we are to understand children’s literature better, I believe their truth needs to be challenged.

  • The best children’s stories have simple texts, bright, colourful pictures, and happy endings. Books that are too long or too difficult frustrate children, and might even destroy their interest in literature and reading altogether.
  • In choosing children’s books, the most important thing to consider is the age of the children they are chosen for. Children who are, say, five years old, enjoy and can understand different books than do children who are three, or seven; so adults need to choose books appropriate to a child’s age.
  • Children respond with delight to fantasies–particularly stories about animals who act like humans.
  • Children like books they can relate to: stories about typical childhood experiences.  Boys like stories about boys, and girls like stories about girls. And children in general are unlikely to be interested in reading about–or even capable of understanding–certain aspects of experience that belong exclusively to adult life, such as sexuality, or the boredom of ordinary daily life in the workplace. If they are interested in such matters, they shouldn’t be.
  • Children’s stories shouldn’t describe unacceptable behaviour, such as violence or rudeness or immorality, that readers might choose to imitate.
  • Children’s stories should also not contain depictions of frightening things that might scare them.
  • Children’s stories should contain positive role models: characters who act in acceptable ways and get rewarded for it.
  • Good children’s books teach valuable lessons about life, but do so unobtrusively.  They make learning fun.

All of these ideas about children’s books say less about literature than they do about children or, more exactly, what adults imagine children are like or, perhaps, should be.In fact, the notion that adults choosing books for children should be thinking primarily about the distinguishing characteristics of childhood might be the most common “obviousness” of all in our ideas about this subject–and, I believe, the most dangerous. For more on assumptions about children, see Common Assumptions about Childhood.

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