Book sale promotes importance of children’s literature

Alan Ham, 7, doesn’t like “Magic Tree House” books anymore. He wants chapter books with detectives and suspense — action, not magic. But while wandering the shelves of the 11th Annual Book Sale at The Center for Children’s Books on Monday, Alan finds a picture book and clutches it to his chest before meekly showing it to his mother, Soo.

“It is a wonderful luxury to have a moment shared with a grown-up you adore,” said Deborah Stevenson, director of the center. “Books provide that opportunity.”

The book sale, Stevenson said, supplies kids, parents and local libraries with cheap, like-new books the center receives from publishers throughout the year for review.

Soo Ham, who chooses not to have a television in her home, said reading with her two children will create a reading “habit” that she hopes will follow them for the rest of their lives.

Rebecca Swartz, a Ph.D. candidate in human and community development at the University, said reading can be much more than a habit: it helps build relationships between children and their parents or caregivers.

“Children’s literature provides a lot of rich opportunities … that can’t really be replaced,” said Swartz, who has a two-year-old daughter of her own who is just starting to experience literature. “I want her to have independence to find out about things that she’s interested in, and I want her to have that kind of opportunity to navigate all different kinds of media, and these children’s books are definitely building her language and her awareness.”

But Stevenson, who has conducted research on the nature and history of children’s literature, still struggles to find a single definition for what children’s literature is.

“For a lot of adults, children’s literature is teaching kids about what the adults would like the world to be and pretending that’s how it is. And those are my least favorite books,” Stevenson said. “I like the material that is giving kids an idea of what is going on and giving them tools to deal with things the way they are.”

At the book sale, even a cursory look through bins of picture books reveals that reality, sometimes dark and nuanced, has as much a place in children’s literature as fables and fancies.

“And the Soldiers Sang” is a grimly illustrated account of the fleeting truce between British and German soldiers during the Christmas of 1914. It ends with the narrator dying from a sniper bullet to the spine.

In the next bin rests “Migrant,” the story of a migrant girl from a Mennonite family in Mexico. She imagines herself as a series of animals: geese, bees, rabbits and puppies, all drawn in psychedelic colored pencil.

“Where’s Walrus?”, the winner of multiple children’s book of the year awards, is a wordless story of an escaped walrus hiding — under a variety of hats — from a mustachioed zookeeper.

There are children and young adult books about rape, murder and the Holocaust. Messages and morals can range from the intelligent, subtle whimsy of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” to the heavy-handed morality tale of “Latawnya, The Naughty Horse, Learns to Say ‘No’ to Drugs.”

“Books, and reading in general, can be fun. It doesn’t have to make you a better person,” Stevenson said, explaining that the intrinsic value of picking up a book isn’t based in the book’s ability to rhyme or its educational content.

Yes, Stevenson said, kids should be exposed to fantasy that can trigger their imagination, yet children are smart and can also handle mature subjects.

But sometimes, she said, books can be stupid in good ways too.

Sometimes all you want is a picture book to hold. And to find that walrus.