Kiwi authors celebrate the importance of children’s books

Published on Tuesday, 24 March 2020
Last updated on Thursday, 19 March 2020

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Picture books and stories are an enriching and inspiring part of childhood. Characters become friends and illustrations offer doorways to other worlds and captivate the imagination. A child’s favourite book will be revisited repeatedly until they know the words by heart. 

While it can be challenging keeping a group of small children interested while you read to them, the more children experience books and the joy of communal reading the better they will become at staying still and quiet. It’s important to remember that when educators show a passion for books, read out loud with expression and treat stories as treasures, they nurture a child’s love of books, which is a gift that lasts a lifetime.

This week four of New Zealand’s award-winning children’s authors’ share their thoughts on the importance of stories for young children. But first, some of the reasons why children need books

  • Books create warm emotional bonds between adults and kids when they read books together.
  • Books help kids develop basic language skills and profoundly expand their vocabularies—much more than any other media.
  • Books are interactive; they demand that kids think. Fiction and nonfiction books widen our consciousness. They give us new ways to think and new ideas. They expand our universe beyond time and place and inspire our own original thoughts.
  • Books develop critical thinking skills. A book is read by an individual and has no laugh track or musical score that emotionally primes a reader’s reaction. You alone decide what you think about a book and its contents with no one leaning over your shoulder telling you how to think.
  • Books develop and nourish kids’ imaginations, expanding their worlds. Picture books introduce young children to the world of art and literature. Novels and nonfiction books stimulate kids’ sensory awareness, helping kids to see, hear, taste, feel, and smell on an imagined level. Books inform our imaginations, inspiring creativity.
  • Books let kids try on the world before they have to go out into it and give kids an opportunity to experience something in their imaginations before it happens to them in real life. Books help prepare kids for their next stage of maturity, vicariously preparing for the “grown-up” world.
  • Books help us to understand ourselves, to find out who we are. Books strengthen our self-confidence and help us to understand why we are who we are. They help us discover where we come from and help us figure out where we want to go.
  • Books provide the opportunity to share cultural experiences. When kids read the same book, enjoying a common reading experience, peer bonds are built within a generation. When children, parents, and grandparents share classic books, extended familial and community bonds are formed creating a shared frame of reference.

New Zealand children’s authors’ have their say

Lynley Dodd is an internationally celebrated writer for children whose titles include Hairy Maclary and Scarface Claw. Her stories are known for their lively sound qualities, curious animal characters, and the memorable illustrations that accompany the text.

In an interview with The Guardian Lynley was asked what makes a picture book memorable.

“A good story well told is fundamental. You’ve got to capture children, which means good language and rhythm. And a book has to be enjoyable to read. For an adult to give an enthusiastic reading you have to provide engaging language. 

The balance between the text and pictures is essential; the text and the illustrations have to speak to each other. A perfect picture book is an equal marriage of text and picture and more than the sum of its parts.”

When asked how picture books can compete with technology, Lynley replied: 

“A good picture book has the power to pull children away from devices. I guess that’s the modern-day challenge for the writer-illustrator. Reading is essential and it’s thrilling to see children enjoying a print book. Children are fascinated by illustrations, not just the story, and are very observant. The picture book fulfils this fascination. They all draw, which is wonderful.

Children often have the notion that producing a picture book is quick and easy. I can tell you it’s not. It takes me up to a year to produce one book. They can’t be whipped up, and telling children that I do up to 25 drafts to get the text right often stumps them.”

Craig Smith is a musician and an author, his popular book The Wonky Donkey was released in 2009 with copies sold mostly in New Zealand and Australia. Demand skyrocketed in 2018 after a YouTube video of a Scottish grandmother reading the book to her four-month-old grandson went viral and now the book has gone global. 

In an interview with Essential Baby in 2010, Craig said, “It’s vital to make reading fun whether it’s through funny illustrations, cheeky rhymes and a rollicking rhythm. I firmly believe that the marriage of song, word and illustration help children learn to read by offering a visual, kinaesthetic and aural experience.” 

 “Kids love the rhythm and rhyme of The Wonky Donkey. Fifty per cent of the words end with ‘nky’ and kids love trying to get their tongues around the tongue-twisting descriptions.”

Eight years later in an interview with The Scottish Sun, Craig again highlighted the importance of reading for kids. 

“…The real reward for me is when parents say that because of my books their kids are now reading,” says Smith.

What they also really relate to is that Wonky has a leg and an eye missing but they’re just facts. There’s nothing wrong with Wonky. Except for when he’s not drinking coffee, he’s very happy.

So I’ve had some really amazing emails from mums and dads with children with prosthetic legs or kids who are missing an eye, and they say Wonky has helped them.”

Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan first came into the children’s picture book scene in 2014 with their books Keys and the te reo Māori version, Ngā Kī. This was followed two years later by The Marble Maker and Te Kaihanga Māpere. Their latest book, The Bomb – about a kid learning to drop a sweet (dive) bomb into the water – won the 2019 Margaret Mahy Book of the Year.

In an interview with The Sapling the pair were asked what they think children should have access to in a book. 

Josh Morgan’s response was captured by the interviewer, who said, “For Josh, it’s important that children are able to see themselves reflected in books, so he finds diversity very important. 

For him, books should be a way for children to experience beautiful illustrations and design, well-crafted stories, and rich language – they should be objects that enrich and expand a child’s world. For Sacha, it’s about providing ways for children to process the world they live in.”

“Stories,” she says, “help children understand, interact with, relate to and wonder at the world and everything in it. Books need to provide children with ways of having fun, chances to think and imagine, and opportunities to explore feelings, values and experiences.”

Thanks to The Guardian, Essential Baby, The Scottish Sun, and The Sapling whose interviews with the authors contributed to this article.

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