February 20, 2008

Things I Learned from Kids' Books

If you're like me--and you probably are, if you read our blog regularly--you're flummoxed by the more-than-occasional lofty attitudes of those who see children's and YA books as easy-to-write, easy-to-digest pabulum for people who haven't quite graduated to the level of reading or writing grown-up books.

So I made this list. It's by no means exhaustive, but I couldn't stop thinking about all the memorable words and ideas and history and everything else that I encountered for the first time in kids' books and teen books--and not just when I was young, either. And just to put this out there, I do read grown-up books, and I do write grown-up short stories. So there.

As a kid, without those kids' books I wouldn't have learned about dodecahedrons or tesseracts. Those books taught me what a veruca was, and what makes somebody a twit. I learned the words of Waltzing Matilda and what to do with the rocks in my head. I learned that I can't catch diabetes from a friend. I learned about the legend of Welsh Prince Madog.

As a teen, I learned more about Wales, its legends, and what the Welsh language looks like. I learned that guys name their guy-parts. I learned that the slender beauty ideal was 5'6" and size 6 (as opposed to size 0). And I learned that, yes, you can get tired of puns.

As an adult, I've learned even more. I've gotten glimpses into others' lives, imaginary and somehow truer than fiction. I've learned what it's like to live on an Alaskan crab boat, or in a 1960s Malaysian town, or in early Britain, or in a rich girl's snowboarding shoes. I've learned about fairy tales I never read as a child.

(And here, in case you're interested, is a list of the books I made reference to: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Twits by Roald Dahl; an unknown book about Waltzing Matilda which I can't track down; What to Do with the Rocks in Your Head by Michael Scheier; You Can't Catch Diabetes from a Friend by Lynne Kipnis; A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle; Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence; Forever by Judy Blume; the Sweet Valley High books by Francine Pascal; the Xanth books by Piers Anthony; Lucy the Giant by Sherri Smith; Town Boy by Lat; The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer and Warriors of Camlann by N.M. Browne; Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley; and Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale.

What have you learned from children's books?


Sara said...

Great post! I blogged my answer and linked to you today. :)

Tricia said...

I learned that compared to some of the kids I read about, my life was pretty darned good, even when I thought it wasn't. On days when I believed I had the worst parents in the world, I was reminded of all the orphans I read about, or kids with simply atrocious parents. Most importantly, I was comforted to know that I wasn't the only kid around who was "quirky" or had odd habits. I had plenty of friends doing interesting things right along with me in books.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Hooray! Thanks, Sara and Tricia.

tanita✿davis said...

When I was a kid, children's encyclopedias and fact books taught me that storytellers don't always use fiction. The world I inhabited was narrow; what I was allowed to read was all factual, but I learned what a good story can be crafted of the truth.

When I was a teen, I learned that it might be possible to become a storyteller myself -- after all, everybody said that S.E. Hinton chick was something like fourteen when she published her first book (an exaggeration, she was 16), and all she did was observe people in her school. I thought, I could do that.

When I left home (I hesitate to say 'adult' because I'm still not much of one now) I read everything I could get my hands on. I learned the definition of 'tripe.' And I learned to read like I ate, to feed myself and all the stages of my inner child. I learned that not everybody thought that young=dumb. I realized that though no one else had grown up like me exactly, everyone had been identically alone and stupid-feeling. I realized that mostly I had needed to know that 'this too shall pass.' Most days I still need to know that. From reading YA books as an adult, I realized that I needed to write.

This wasn't nearly as eloquent as what you had, but it's the best I've got. :)

Anonymous said...

I've learned, as an adult, about how art can extend text in all the gorgeous picture books I'm catching up on now.

I learned what true friendship means from Charlotte's Web. Sounds cliche, but it's true.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I learned that not everyone lives the way I do, and that my way is not necessarily the "right" or only way.

Saints and Spinners said...

This is a great post. Let me think about what I've learned for a moment....

As a child, I learned about petit-fours from Elizabeth Enright (The Saturdays) and Turkish delight from C.S. Lewis (Lion/Witch/Wardrobe). I learned that the little red flecks in chicken were supposed to be paprika (from one of Beverly Cleary's Ramona books).

As a teen, I learned about the feminine in God via Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, and about Irish myths and legends from The Hounds of the Morrigan (Pat O'Shea).

As an adult, I learned origami from an abundance of library books and taught myself to crochet via more library books. (I then forgot how to crochet, but that's a skill I could pick up again if I desired.) I still read lots of fiction, but I'm sure glad for all of the "how to" information books out there. I'm getting an unofficial "continuing education" degree for very little (my library tax dollars).

A Paperback Writer said...

I learned about colonialism from reading Burnett's A Little Princess.
I also recall that my very first introduction to Beethoven and the Red Baron came from reading Peanuts comic strips.