The Power & Importance of Books, and Why Children's Books Aren't The Same as Lying

Last weekend I decided to go book buying - and, for reasons of my own that are probably not too hard to work out, I was determined to eschew Amazon.com. Independent bookstores are wonderful places but they're fast becoming few and far between. A little online research, though, soon led us to To Be Continued, a pretty snazzy store in Metuchen, NJ. It's only about 15 minutes away from me, and this is a Good Thing.

(The shop's actually in the exact location of a previous bookshop that closed down last year, which makes me quietly happy in a que sera sera, circle-of-life kind of way)

While browsing, my wife and I got into conversation with the owner, and among other things we got on to the matter of banned books.

'Do you know what the number one removal request was for libraries in the U.S. last year was?' he asked.
There were some obvious contenders. Fifty Shades? Twilight? Some things make parents very unhappy.

'It was Captain Underpants,' he said.


Now, I've not read the Captain Underpants books, and I have few issues with parents wanting to protect their own children from inappropriate material, but you have to wonder what was going on there.

And that, in turn, got me thinking. What are children's books all about, really, and what are they meant to "teach" kids? Should we be teaching things at all? Can't you just enjoy the ride?

Whether you see books as a tool to impart lessons or just a quick way to entertain, I think it's important to focus on one key aspect - things being made up doesn't make them not true, and things being impossible doesn't make them lies.

Children's books are often full of daring-do, stupidity, nonsense, horror, shock, humour, love, sadness, rivalry ... in fact, pretty much the average day of a young kid. Authors work, a lot of the time, to say things which are true by telling you about things which aren't. What are the overall themes of, say, Harry Potter, or Skellig, or Sheldon Silverstein? Loyalty, I'd say, and hope, and bravery and a willingness to try. After all ...

Listen to Mustn'ts, child, listen to the Don'ts.
Listen to the Shouldn'ts, the Impossibles, the Won'ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child, Anything can be. 
- Sheldon Allan Silverstein, 

There might be a tendency to think that stories are inherently childish, but I don't agree with that at all. Stories are, if anything, inherently complicated and difficult to get right, but the best ones can be enormous fun and still show kids things about the world they didn't know before.

So do we lie to children when we tell them that their wardrobe might lead to another world, or that trees can talk, or that there are reasons to be scared of the dark? No. Those are important things to know. How many adults have forgotten these lessons? And how many might be happier or better if they remembered, just for a moment, to look at goblin men or believe in fairies?

I supposed in all these jumbled thoughts is a belief that writing books for children is one of the best ways of telling them true things. I know certain books stayed with and helped to shape me. And to those authors, I'm thankful. And to those who are wary of silly books and impossible things, I'd just say - we live in a world of impossible things, and books are the best way to open, not close, your mind.

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