From Tots to Teens, StarMag
I READ your column on the sly," a woman in her mid 20s said to me the other day.
"You must have me mixed up with someone else," I said, half-peevishly. "My column isn't about anything you'd want to hide having an interest in." Actually, I knew she had not mistaken who I was; I knew what she was getting that.
True enough, she told me, in a whisper that she loved children's books but didn't want her friends to find out. "So embarrassing," she giggled.
I simply gave her my best fake smile. Sometimes, I just can't be bothered to explain that if you're an adult who reads and enjoys children's books, it does not mean that you are mentally deficient. Nor does it mean that you have unusual tastes. If you do read children's books, you'll know that they are about practically everything under the sun. Sex is practically the only thing that you won't find in children's literature, but teen lit does deal with the subject, sometimes quite explicitly (much to the dismay of some parents and teachers who, in my opinion, are in denial).
I also frequently meet parents who tell me, in horror, that they're children still enjoy picture books. For shame! Those are for babies surely!
I suggested that an English language tutor use picture books to teach her 14-year-old student who couldn't read well and had problems concentrating on the reading primers she used. Short sentences and paragraphs interspersed with pictures are less intimidating than large blocks of text; and illustrations can also be used to improve a child's observational and descriptive skills. The tutor, however, felt that the student would be embarrassed if she used "baby" books to teach him. His friends would laugh at him. Well, why not teach his friends using the same books? I don't think you're ever too old for picture books.
Author/illustrator Anthony Browne feels that way too. Browne has just been chosen as Britain's new Children's Laureate. He takes over from poet and picture book author Michael Rosen, and will hold the post for two years.
Browne is looking forward to championing picture books which he said, in an interview with The Times, "are being marginalised and forgotten about".
His own picture books often feature monkeys and apes, especially gorillas. In the same interview, he says, "Gorillas are just fascinating to draw in the way that old people’s faces are more interesting to draw than young people’s faces."
Although the books sometimes deal with serious issues like parental neglect and bullying, the use of apes allows, I believe, for a more child-friendly approach, as animals tend to be viewed by children as non-threatening, and also allow children some distance when reading about these difficult situations.
Here are three of my favourite books by Browne. All are published by Walker Books. Into the Forest is no longer in print, but I hope it will be re-issued now that Browne is Childrens's Laureate.
HANNAH yearns for attention and affection from her workaholic father. She is ignored even on her birthday, but then her toy gorilla turns into a real ape who dons her father's suit and takes her on a magical tour of the city. The gorilla's love and devotion, and good humour is especially heartbreaking when you realise that he is animated simply by Hannah's ability to imagine so clearly what she is deprived of.
INTO THE FOREST
A BOY wakes one stormy night to find his father gone. The next morning, he is sent on an errand, to care for his sick grandmother. "Don't go into the forest," warns his mother, but he decides to anyway. His journey, a confrontation of his fears about his father, is a visual treat into the world of story as fairytale characters and motifs appear throughout the book, and the boy gets his happily ever after in due course.
VOICES IN THE PARK
FOUR people visit a park and offer four different perspectives of the same story. A snobbish woman, her son and their Labrador meet a jobless man, his daughter and their mongrel. The children and dogs play together and are observed very differently by each adult. The world around also changes depending on whose eyes it is seen by, and Browne inserts some stunning, and frequently disturbing images that add to his commentary on friendship, alienation and the power of kindness.