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Inspired reading: getting kids to engage with important books

(illustration: Byron Eggenschwiler)

Whether it’s war and poverty on the evening news or bullying in our own schools, we all wish we could protect children from life’s harsh realities. But at the same time, we want them to grow up to be well-informed, open-minded adults with an understanding of the world outside their front doors. No doubt they’ll pick up some of this information from the media, the Internet, and their friends at school, but wouldn’t it be better if we introduced them to the wider world in a supportive environment, to avoid the spread of misinformation and promote understanding?

For Linda Granfield, author of more than 20 children’s books, it’s important not to shy away from difficult topics. Her upcoming picture book, The Road to Afghanistan (due from Scholastic Canada in August), is aimed at ages seven and up, and tells the story of three generations of a family who all take part in different wars. (The book is illustrated by Brian Deines.)

Kids won’t [choose this book on their own], but that’s why we need these materials, says Granfield. A kid isn’t going to pick up a book on AIDS either, but it could be part of their family story, and it’s definitely part of the community story.

Granfield stresses the importance of having a grown-up share her books with children, as the stories inevitably lead to questions. These difficult topics do need an adult who is sort of a go-between, who selects the material and then presents it, she says.

Janet Wilson, whose non-fiction picture book Our Rights: How Kids Are Changing the World (Second Story Press) is coming in April, agrees this type of book should be read in a supportive setting, and acknowledges that most children won’t be drawn to them on their own. The publisher is aware of that risk and still commits to producing these books, because they recognize the importance, says Wilson. I’m just so grateful that we have publishers like that in Canada.

The Road to Afghanistan doesn’t shy away from the realities of war “ Granfield mentions sleeping in trenches with rats, killing enemy soldiers, and suffering horrific injuries “ but she balances those descriptions with relatable stories of hope and family bonds, and tries to convey soldiers’ motivations without introducing personal bias.

However, Granfield strives to create books that are more than simply didactic teaching tools. She’s aware kids may need some persuasion to read about war, and that’s why she believes the picture book format, combined with a story as focused on human emotion as it is on historical detail, will help hold their interest. The language has to be very simple, so I was very careful about word selection “ not in the sense of censoring, but the sound of words, she says. It’s very much made to be read aloud.

Another way of attracting young readers to difficult subjects is with a charismatic young protagonist who stands up to an enemy. Such is the case with When I Was Eight (Annick Press), a picture book by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton about an Inuit girl who faces humiliation at the hands of a cruel nun at a residential school. With the Idle No More protest movement having become a prominent Canadian news story, this aspect of our country’s history “ the abuse suffered by native children at residential schools “ is arguably more relevant than ever to today’s kids.

We meet many students from foreign countries who have been through some pretty rough ordeals, and they’re able to gather things from Margaret’s stories to give them strength, says Jordan-Fenton, who wrote the book based on the personal experiences of Pokiak-Fenton, her mother-in-law. I guess what I would most like children to know is that, even as children, they have the strength inside of them to get through anything and come out with a very positive view, as Margaret did.

For Lana Button, an early childhood educator and author of two picture books for three- to seven-year-olds, the goal is to provide social and emotional guidance through her writing. It’s very hard to get young children to see somebody else’s point of view, but that’s one of the duties of a picture book, says Button. It allows you to open up a page and show a child and say, ˜How do you think that made her feel?’ It allows children to see not just their own perspective, but their friend’s perspective as well.

In Button’s Willow Finds a Way (the follow-­up to 2010’s Willow’s Whispers, both from Kids Can Press), the shy protagonist and her friends learn the power of the phrase You can’t come to my birthday party! when a girl at school lords her upcoming celebration over her classmates, leaving some feeling left out. It’s a form of social bullying, and for someone as timid as Willow, it takes a lot of courage to overcome.

The success of the first Willow book has already proven that these stories are reaching the kids who need them. After it was published, a teacher sent Button a brief letter from a young ESL student that said: I feel like Willow. I feel invisible. I’m going to try harder to speak up.

That, for Button, was worth more than any book review. That was so inspiring for me, she says. I think socially, emotionally, if she felt connected and thought, ˜Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and stick up for myself,’ that’s all you can ever hope for.

With books that tackle challenging subjects, the hope is that young readers will actually enjoy reading them “ that they will be good, not just good for you. Ideally, the educational element is blended into a story that is compelling, relatable, and boosted by illustrations “ kind of like sneaking bits of cauliflower into your kid’s mashed potatoes.

And although the authors hope children will enjoy simply reading these books, Janet Wilson emphasizes the importance of taking it one step further. Discussion is an important part of any book that deals with a difficult subject, she says. You don’t just read it and put it down like a Cinderella story “ it’s the basis for a conversation.

“ From the March 2013 issue of Q&Q