by Alex Millen
There is an anonymous quotation about the power of children’s literature that renders the rest of this article inadequate and unnecessary: ‘Great children’s literature appeals not only to the child in the adult, but the adult in the child’. Through literature, then, a child has the opportunity to formulate ideas, emotional responses, engage in arguments that enable him or her to mature not through the inevitable passage of puberty or the lessons of their parents, but through the ever-expanding and diverse world of literature.
This is not to say that you should leave a child in a room with the Complete Works of Shakespeare and see if he/she comes out a glorious product of literature. Such an experiment is scary indeed. I am also not saying that a child with loving guardians and friends could never be an excellent human being if they didn’t pick up a book.
I would like to argue, though, that through literature a child has the opportunity to transcend the sometimes very limiting and limited confines of childhood. Who does not remember Mummy or Daddy saying something was wrong, ‘because I said so’? Being a child – and an adult, and the bit in-between – is a very confusing experience; an experience that can only be enriched by engaging in as many narratives of alternate experience as possible. Again, this is not to say that every 8 year old should beat themselves on the head with Anna Karenina until they are clever. God forbid. But surely the best way to learn how to be a human being is to see the mistakes of others, their heroic achievements and the structures within which they exist – through literature, this is possible.
I did not read as a child, and feel that I will be playing catch up for the rest of my life. It is one of my greatest regrets that I did not listen to my Mum telling me to read more. I lacked desire, which could only have been created – paradoxically – by reading great literature. I needed to know something was worth reading before I would read it. I would say: ‘I like reading, but I just need the right book’, as if only a few books were worthy of my attention. I had completely disregarded a limitless world of literature – except Harry Potter, everybody reads Harry Potter, right?
My point is that children need to know the value of reading and the only way that they can know this is if they read. So make them read. Don’t be content with a half-arsed attitude. It is easier than ever to switch off our brains, indulge in the instant sugary gratification of mindless games, social networking, all of which are available at our fingertips. It is not that these things should be avoided. Quite the opposite: they are necessary. But to indulge in them 24/7 without setting aside some time to read is a dangerous road to go down.
It is very difficult to talk about the necessity for children to read without sounding like you are telling people how to raise their children. A recent survey by the National Literacy Trust found that fewer children across the UK are reading in their own time, and one in five is embarrassed to be caught with a book. The last statistic speaks for itself.
If children are not reading, they are not given the opportunity to explore the adults inside of them. The world would be so much the better if these child-adults were given time and freedom to flourish. This is the power of literature. It is also the reason why my children, god help them, will suffer hours of nagging. They’ll thank me later (and if they don’t it’s because they didn’t read enough literature…)