Given that yesterday was not only Hans Christian Anderson’s birthday, but also International Children’s Book Day, I thought I might write something on this wonderful wealth of literature. I realise my post is a tad late, but I hope you’ll forgive me this. As far as I’m concerned, every day should be International Children’s Book Day!
Growing up, I was a rather strange and dreamy child. My grandfather had always read bedtime stories to me from an early age, and when I was old enough to read for myself I was inevitably in some corner or another with my nose in a book. Where I lacked sometimes in social skills, I made up for it in imagination. My friends were generally ‘not real’. (But please do not ever mention this to them. It is a touchy subject.) My mother indulged my peculiar ways. I remember a birthday cake she once made for my best friend at the time, a purple kangaroo called Raspberry. Because we could never have all the animals in the house I truly wanted, I also invented a magical border collie who could of course communicate with me in very good English. I wrote fanatically and had high aspirations of becoming the youngest children’s author ever. I was dismayed when I learned a little later that someone had already beat me to this.
Not a day goes by, where I do not count the good fortune of being part of a family that encouraged reading. It has been of immeasurable value in my life. Because of the education I received at home and the curiosity that it awoke in me, things were a great deal easier when I had to attend school and university than I imagine it was for those students who had been denied this privilege. But that is merely a more practical benefit. There are so many other ways in which reading can enrich the life of a child, and the adult they will one day become.
As I have said in the past, I believe that reading teaches us empathy. It teaches us to see the world vividly through the eyes of another, to momentarily embody their experiences. It also opens us up to alternative ways of thinking, ways of being. The imagination it fosters allows us to overcome problems that may arise over the course of our lives in dynamic and creative ways. With a rich vocabulary, we are able to express the complex emotions that we feel, to share these feelings with others so that they might better understand us. Surely there can be no greater gift to give to a child then, than an appreciation for literature.
My love of children’s literature has not ended since I have become an adult. If anything, I now have a greater respect for the children’s author and illustrator than I ever did. A friend of mine, knowing how much I adore children’s books, sent me an article the other day. It raised an interesting point, and one I couldn’t agree with more. Unlike most books written for adults, children’s books are read over and over again to children who have developed a special bond with that particular story. Because of this, they cannot be poorly written. I will add to this by saying that children’s books are inevitably read aloud to the child. If you want to know how much power the humble sentence holds, a general rule of thumb is to read it aloud. A single sentence that has not been carefully considered will not hold up to this scrutiny. So even though I have no children of my own, I continue to add to my collection of children’s books and to read and treasure them as the pieces of profound literature they are.
Yesterday, to commemorate the day, I compiled a list of my top 5 children’s books and posted it on facebook, asking friends to do the same. It was no small feat. I was rather tempted at one point to turn it into a top 10 list, but thought that might be a bit of a cheat. And besides, I knew from there it would only grow into a top 20 list, and so on and so forth. The literature I selected for my list featured the incredible talent of Margery Williams, Kate DiCamillo, Neil Gaiman, Oliver Jeffers and Brian Selznick.
However, I sadly omitted a piece of literature that is very dear to me, namely Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch. As International Children’s Book Day falls on the birthday of Hans Christian Anderson, and Erlbruch is a German writer and illustrator who was awarded the Hans Christian Anderson Award in 2006, I feel it is only fitting to add him now. The book, Duck, Death and the Tulip, is not only beautiful because of Erlbruch’s sublime style of illustration but also because of the way in which he tells the story of a duck’s encounter with her own mortality. Death is a tricky subject to broach, especially with children. In this tale, we as readers come to know Death as a character who we need not fear, a character who is simply close by whether we choose to acknowledge him or not. For a time, the duck and Death decide to enjoy each other’s company, share in each other’s thoughts. In the end, of course, the duck ceases to breathe and Death carries her to a river, watching the body of the duck drift off for a long time. Death even finds himself touched by this moment. But then, ‘That’s life, thought Death’. *
So please, never think that you are too old for a children’s story. Perhaps in adulthood, when we have often become cynical and jaded in our view of the world around us, we need them more than ever. And if you have children, know that any love of reading you can instill will steer them on a truly spectacular journey.
*As an aside, if death is a subject you would like to raise with your children and you fear that Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch may be a bit morbid, might I suggest The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. It is an especially lovely picture book in which a little girl learns to overcome the death of a beloved grandfather and it is well worth the read.