Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Evolution of Children's Books

By Eva P., who writes for Christian Counseling Degree and is working towards adding a social worker degree to her resume.
Growing up, my favorite books were classics like Curious George or any number of Dr. Seuss books. Children's books were simple but whimsical morality tales, teaching me and other readers to do right, with heartwarming illustrations that didn't get too complex.
My, how things have changed. Over the last 25 year children's books have become more elaborate and denser affairs, incorporating often tough themes that books of an older generation would not have touched, but treating them deftly and warmly. The simple illustrations of older classics have been replaced by elaborate, colorful displays, gorgeously hand-drawn, painted, or now, computer-generated with added complexities such as pop-up pages or other gimmicks.
Children's books have become more sophisticated, in plot, subject matter, and illustration/presentation, reflecting a need to keep children interested in an age of ever-present media. Getting children to read has always been difficult, but never more so than now. There is stiff competition from more instant gratification such as the internet, television, and video games. Children's books have to vie for the attention of their audiences against new mediums.
As a result, the books have become increasingly more complex. The pages are glossier, the plots more detailed, the illustrations more eye-catching. The information age has brought about a revolution in how authors and publishers think about a child's aptitude to comprehend. As video games have taught us, children grasp technology well. But their understanding of the underlying content is truly remarkable. Traditional children's stories have perhaps ignored a child's ability to critically analyze situations and problem-solve, focusing instead on naive, escapist, parent-approved tales.
Traditional stories still certainly have a place, but there is also now room for books that tackle tougher subjects. Previously unheard of, many books now deal with the sentiments of loneliness, particularly resulting from busy or negligent parents. Others explore parents with alternative lifestyles, like the famous Jennifer Has Two Daddies and Heather Has Two Mommies. Children's books need not skirt life's truths. Instead, they should teach acceptance of all kinds of feelings and differences relevant to modern times, because children need not be shielded: they are sophisticated enough to handle it.
It would be wrong to write about any trend in children's lit without discussing the Harry Potter phenomenon. These books incorporate all the above-discussed to make one mega series: complex plot; hard themes including isolation, death, and loss; and exciting writing and action that bests anything on film or television (except maybe the Harry Potter films themselves). These are books that many parents would have considered too dark and intense in previous years, but are now the most popular ones the world has ever seen.
To be sure, Curious George still has a place in today's age. Sweetness and good storytelling will never go away, and it's something publishers of all eras should to keep under consideration. But to see the publishing houses of children's literature respect their audience's capacity to learn and grapple with complex and challenging topics is most encouraging, and perhaps represents the greatest change from yesteryear.


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