There’s much to learn from children — especially if we start reading what’s on their book shelves.
Children’s literature isn’t what it used to be. No longer do bedtime stories merely have a positive moral message for any given kid to ponder before drifting off into dreamland.
More and more children’s stories are covering pertinent issues in our world that both adults and children can learn from.
Because children’s literature is hard to define — especially because some would classify Harry Potter as children’s literature — I’m sticking to short stories intended for children around the age of 12 when I speak on the topic.
In the last 15 years authors have gone above and beyond to cover a wide array of topics, ranging from global awareness to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues to colonialism and our ever-growing multicultural world.
It seems to me that Robert Munsch was the primary author of my childhood. I’ve got about six copies of Love You Forever, a book that still warms my heart every time I read it. Admittedly, Purple, Green and Yellow and The Paperbag Princess were also personal favorites of mine. But these stories don’t necessarily get down to the nitty gritty issues that children should arguably be introduced to at a young age.
Imagine if our generation of 20-somethings had been introduced to gay marriage as kindergarteners. It would have become absolutely normal for us, reducing homophobia in our society as we grew up.
Soon this will no longer be something we have to imagine. Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, written by Sarah Brannen, is one example of a text that normalizes gay marriage and is a positive step forward in changing how the next generation will view the LGBT community in any given context.
If children are exposed to this issue while they’re young — and if it is promoted by parents and educators as normal — then children won’t think twice when they see two individuals of the same sex getting married.
On a similar note, Little Feet, Big Steps, written by Brit Sharon, introduces the topic of AIDS to children. Little Things Make a Big Difference: A Story About Malaria, by writing partners John and Monique Nunes, introduces children growing up in the developed world to issues in the developing world, explaining the ways in which those with plentiful means can help those in need.
If The World Were A Village Of 100 People by Ikeda Kayoko is another awesome children’s book that puts the world’s population into a comprehensible perspective for young minds. Similarly, Rana DiOrio’s What Does It Mean To Be Global takes readers on a journey of the world, explaining the goodness of exploration and inquiry-based learning that effectively teaches everyone to respect the traditions and cultures of others.
Don’t all of these stories sound like pieces of literature that adults should be reading too?
Some may argue that the ways in which authors like Brannen, DiOrio and Nunes approach these worldly topics is very simplistic in nature — which is true — but that doesn’t mean the information has been dumbed down. The fundamental issue is still intact in all of these stories whether the topic being tackled is gay marriage, HIV/AIDS, globalization or multiculturalism.
These stories function just like any other children’s book: there is a lesson to be learned. The lesson does not have to be complicated to teach the child in question something that will stay with him or her for years to come.
There’s a reason I still find myself reading Love You Forever every now again. I still need to remind myself what it means to care for someone else, and to be cared for in return. More than that, Love You Forever teaches that love needs to not only be vocalized but physically shown as well.
My hope is that a child who reads a story about colonialism will never forget the message of that story and, in the future, will be proactive in the decolonization of cultures who’ve been subject to eurocentric ways of living.
The same can be said for a child who reads a story about being a global citizen or about being an active member of his or her community fundraising for HIV and AIDS.
After all, change doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in stages. The first stage is introducing these topics early.
That being said, these stories that are intended for a young audience can be taught to any age demographic. English curriculum classes at the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan promote the use of children’s books in high school classrooms as well as in elementary schools. This approach is a simple way to get complicated conversations going.
What better way to start a unit on First Nations, Métis and Inuit history than to choose some children’s stories that cover issues pertaining to the primary topics and objectives that teachers want student to learn? It’s a simple way to engage the class in a discussion that moves beyond the simple regurgitation of information.
Taking this idea one step further, there’s no reason why adults can’t use this kind of literature in other contexts as well. Arguably, much of the prejudice that exists in this world comes from a lack of education and awareness, regardless of what the topic may be about.
Rather than attempting to sophistically educate someone who is totally ignorant to something like climate change through complex discussions, why not start from the beginning? Start with the basics that a children’s book offers.
Hell, if you’re short of gift ideas this holiday season for your racist uncle, think about buying him a children’s book like What Does It Mean To Be Global as a subtle gesture to push him in the right direction. As ludicrous as this may sound, showing an ignorant and potentially oppressive adult that this is the kind of literature our society is producing for children may very well help them realize the importance of equality. Who knows — a children’s books may help change someone’s attitude.
The next time you have to purchase a gift for a child (or an adult) think about buying a children’s book that deals with a political, social, health-related or global topic.
Let’s keep our kids informed from the get-go in the hopes that our world will be a better place in the future.
Graphic: Stephanie Mah