Over the weekend I attended a festival for creators (or aspiring creators) of books for children and young adults.
There are so many things that I want to say about all the wonderful things that I heard over the weekend. It was heaven to be surrounded by people who live and breathe children’s books. If I ever take the plunge and try to write a children’s book myself, the things I learned this weekend will be invaluable.
What I want to focus on in this post is a theme that ran through many of the presentations given by the very talented speakers. It is something that I am very passionate about too.
Children need and deserve respect. Over and over again we heard that it is vital that creators of children’s books never underestimate their audience. Children are entitled to rich language and beautiful writing just as much as anyone else.
The sublime Mem Fox ran a workshop in which she talked about sometimes being asked to change a word in her manuscripts because an editor thinks that a child audience will be unfamiliar with it. Mem said: “That’s exactly the point!” If a child comes across a new word in a book, they are then able to learn that word and it will become part of their vocabulary.
If children are never exposed to new language, their vocabulary will not expand.
Not only is it important not to limit the language that children are reading, but it is also important not to be too restrictive about the themes that are introduced to children through their reading.
While you need to of course be mindful of when and how you are introducing certain topics to your child, children don’t exist in a bubble and picture books can be a fantastic way of explaining some of the darker realities about the world.
After the terror attacks that flooded our media recently, I posted some images on social media from one of the most beautiful picture books I own: We Are All Born Free by Amnesty International. At the time I said that picture books are a perfect way of talking to your children about difficult topics that may have been raised in something they have seen or heard.
Another perfect example of this, is a new picture book called One Step At A Time. Sally Heinrich and Anna Solding (Midnight Sun), the illustrator and publisher of the book, were panelists at the festival. The book is authored by Jane Jolly.
As with many of the other guests, Sally and Anna spoke of the need to have respect for children. Anna said she is interested in publishing books that stand out from those that you might usually find on the shelves.
The book is about a baby elephant who is badly injured when she steps on a landmine. Her best friend, a little boy called Luk, is by her side throughout her entire recovery. In the end, the elephant is fitted with a prosthesis and Luk leads her one step at a time out of the enclosure. A definite tear-jerker!
While it tackles serious themes that will open further discussion, ultimately the story is one of love, friendship, and perseverance in the face of adversity. Therefore, children have familiar relatable themes that ground this book in their own experience.
This is picture book is aimed at an older audience than the books that I usually look at. I wouldn’t be reading it to my two year old. Although having said that, he has enjoyed looking at Sally Heinrich’s absolutely exquisite pictures. Rather than reading the text, we have been telling our own stories about the elephant and his friend.
For older children, this book is beautifully written, illustrated, and designed. It respects children enough to introduce weighty issues, while remaining enjoyable to read.
A book that is able to teach and inspire as it entertains is a treasure indeed.
There were many wonderful points to take home from my weekend of learning. The thing that impressed me the most was the commitment of all of the creators to respecting children.
Something that we should all remember to do.