Toronto Zoo
TOP

Real reading

As a writer and a publisher, I’ll admit that I can be a bit picky about books, but when it comes to the kids books I’ve seen recently, I think I’m justified in being a little disappointed.

It’s not all books for kids that fail to live up to my expectations, just the ever increasing number of “early reader” books that are mass produced in every flavour of television show, movie, and toy brand currently being sold to kids. You know the ones. They have a big number up in the corner to indicate their reading level. They usually have generic illustrations. They also usually have almost no story at all.

Don’t believe me? Actually read one some day. I don’t mean read one to a kid without paying much attention. I mean read one to yourself with an eye to the story. What you’ll see immediately is that there’s almost none at all.

Some don’t even try – they just list the characters in the show or the film with descriptions of each. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of approach, of course. They can be really informative, and they’re an opportunity to introduce kids to the idea of character. Unfortunately, they rarely or never make use of this opportunity. The characters are always drawn in the most simplistic and superficial ways – what colour their hair is, the super powers they possess, their nemesis, their favourite things to do. At no point do they actually represent anything that would constitute complex human character.

The books that bother to attempt a story almost always just recap an episode of the show or an incident in the movie or a situation involving the toys, but in such a rudimentary way as to be laughable. The worst of them, and there are many in this category, are actually nonsensical, as if part of the story has been forgotten or removed to bring down the page count. There’s nothing that resembles a complete story arc, or simple character development, or even things like a beginning and an ending. They’re a random set of statements loosely connected to an intellectual property.

Parents are generally willing to ignore all this (if they even bother to read the books and notice their inadequacies in the first place) because kids are initially drawn to them. All parents see is that their kids are excited by the content (Look, Mom, it’s unicorns!), and anything that gets kids reading is good, right? But the problem is that this kind of reading only helps encourage the mechanics of reading, not the broader functions of reading – storytelling, character development, communication.

The result is that kids never learn to love the act of reading. They’re never engaged in the process of reading. When their interest in the show or the toy wanes, there’s no incentive to pick up that book any longer, or to go looking for another book, because it was never about the book in the first place, never about reading in the first place. The book was always just another form of merchandising.

This merchandise is more and more coming to replace real children’s literature – the kind that tells story, that explores human character, that addresses human concerns, that introduces other kinds of experience, that fosters empathy and reflection – in short, the kinds of book that engages kids with the substance and significance of reading. And then we’re surprised when they grow up uninterested in books.

If we as parents want to foster a love of reading in our children (and there are so many reasons that we should), we need to introduce them to better books. We need to give them story, not merchandise.