Thursday, December 27, 2007

The importance of literature

I thought I'd write an early post on the importance and power of literature for children. Narrative is a vital part of life. Much of life is impacted by ‘story’. In a sense, life is a grand narrative made up of countless sub narratives. It shouldn't surprise us then that children's literature is one of the most common and effective ways to introduce children to literacy.

Of course a piece of literature is more than just a good story. I wrote in one of my books (Pathways to Literacy, Cairney 1995, p.77-78) that literature can act as:

* a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
* a source of knowledge
* a source of ideological challenge
* a means to peer into the past, and the future
* a vehicle to other places
* a means to reflect on inner struggles
* an introduction to the realities of life and death
* a vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues

As well as helping our children to be comfortable using language and to become readers, literature offers all of the above opportunities, and provides parents with a rich insight into life and the human condition. A few basic hints:
  • Read from birth (yes, the first few days if you can cope and find time). In fact, you can start before birth, my children both read to my grandchildren in the womb!
  • Don’t stop reading when your children learn to read themselves – read to them (even up to 12 years of age), read with them (I read with my teenage children), read the same books at times so that you can talk about the content of what they are reading. This is part of developing common ground – things to talk about.
  • Do involve yourself in the choices your children make about books. Help them to choose books that they will like. Help them to make wise choices about books that aren’t appropriate for them.
Here are a few books that you and your children will find rewarding and enjoyable and that will offer great opportunities to talk about the Bible's teaching.

1. Littlies

I’ll always love you, Hans Wilhelm – a delightful picture book that tells of the death of a little boy’s dog called Elfie. This would be appropriate for 4-7 years.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, Mem Fox – the story of a little boy who makes friends with the residents of an aged care facility next door and discovers just how wonderful memories can be. This would suits 3-6 year olds.

Where the wild things are, Maurice Sendak – This classic book has so much to offer. It is about the imaginary adventures of a little boy who is sent to bed without supper after being naughty. Suitable to be read at multiple levels from 3-7 years.

2. Early primary (suitable to be read to children as young as 7 or read by 8 & 9 year olds)

Mike, Brian Caswell – This junior novel tells the story of a boy who moves with his mother from Melbourne to Sydney and of the adjustment problems, including experiencing bullying and making a new friend. The companion story Lisdalia is written from the perspective of his friend who is growing up in a traditional Italian family with all of the struggles you’d expect when living in two cultures.

Tales of fourth grade nothing, Judy Blume – This junior novel tells of the problems an older brother has coping with his little brother, Fudge. Plenty for siblings to relate to here.

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White – It’s hard to go past this classic tale of survival, hope, life and death. Even if it’s been seen on DVD its worth reading with your children.

3. Upper primary (suitable to read to 10-12 year olds or to be read by 11-13 year olds)

Number the stars, Lois Lowry – This wonderful book tells of the escape of a Danish Jewish family by boat from the Nazis in World War II. A story that touches on numerous themes such as human cruelty, life, death and survival.

The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson – This is the story of a tough little girl who has lived most of her life in foster care. The events of the book are centred on what happens when she goes to live with an elderly woman, Mrs Trottter. Full of rich relational issues.

The machine gunners, Robert Westall – This one is for the boys! Guaranteed to interest any boy. The tale of a group of boys living in Britain through the Blitz, their war souvenir collecting, their brushes with death and of lots of moral choices along the way.

I've included a link on this Blog to a list of 250 Great Children's Books I've compiled as a useful starting point for people wanting to choose good books to read with or to their children.

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