The news just broke… Walter Dean Myers has passed. In his lifetime, he wrote over 100 books, served as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, won too many awards and honors to list, advised and inspired kids and young writers everywhere, and impacted thousands of lives. He was a lifelong proponent of diversity in children’s literature, and just a few months ago wrote an article that once again sparked the discussion.
15 tips for starting a lifelong conversation about books
By Laura Lambert for readbrightly.com
So, what’d you think of the book? Good.
Did you like the book? Yeah.
What did you like about it? It was good.
For a lot of parents, that’s pretty much standard fare when it comes to talking about books with young readers. All you want is insight into their little brains — what’s catching their interest, what’s sparking their imagination, how they feel, what they think. And what you get, at best, is monosyllabic meaninglessness.
TODDLERS AND PRESCHOOLERS Talking about books with little kids usually goes pretty well — they’re easily engaged, especially if you do all the voices. Still, it’s important to establish the habit.
1. Point and ask. Toddlers are unabashed know-it-alls. Stop mid-story and ask them to name objects and colors. If they’re old enough, they can count. “How many flowers?” It may seem distracting — and yes, it will drag out storytime — but it’s vital for language development.
2. Make a prediction. At this age, you can simply ask, “What happens next?” They’ve undoubtedly heard the story enough times to know, and repetition won’t bother a 3-year-old. This is the basis of story arc.
3. Pause — and let them fill the silence. With Goodnight Moon, for example, just say, “three little bears / sitting in…” and your little one will undoubtedly say “Chairs!” This works especially well with rhyming books.
SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN Once kiddos begin reading on their own or getting into chapters books, things finally get interesting — and, for some, rather quiet. For a lot of kids, reading is private. This is when to start honing your power to draw your child out.
6. Discuss difficult words. If your child is reading to you, it’s easy to stop and talk about words that are above their pay grade. Bring in the dictionary. Talk about words you are confused about, too — it makes it okay for her to not know.
7. Make the questions personal. At this stage, it’s time to move beyond basic plot-based questions like, “What do you think happens next?” You can invite them to engage a little more personally with the book, to see themselves in a situation. “What would you have done differently?” Explore how their motivations may be different from what’s on the page.
8. Compare and contrast. Early readers love book series, and series easily lend themselves to comparison. How was this book different from the last one you read?
Did you know your behavior signifies a decline in greater civilization? You should. No, it doesn’t matter that I’ve never read the stupid things you’re reading. I am the last adult in America.
I see you and your secret, childish acronyms. YA? MG? TFIOS? I had look up this stuff on the World Wide Web and I’m still confused. I’m a person of a certain age and I’ve been left out of the cultural conversation. My feelings about this should mean more than they actually do.
I know this will upset people, but I don’t understand why anyone over the age of six is reading books for children. When I was in kindergarten, my favorite book was OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Old men are grown-ups, and that’s what I wanted to be: an old man wrestling with a fish. Also, reading it was horrible, and no one who is a grown-up ever reads for pleasure, because reading for pleasure is stupid. Just ask all those guys reading Dean Koontz and Lee Child. They’re in it for the metaphors.
Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, well, look, I am all those things but you should hear me out anyway, because I have opinions. LISTEN. It’s time to center the cultural conversation back where it belongs: on me. All YA is silly, sentimental and simple and I know this because mostly ladies write it and no one should make that much money from books about a vampire.
All of you are YouTubing right now, aren’t you? You’re totally YouTubing. Stop that.
This is what I’m trying to say: I’m concerned for you. I say these things out of love, not a love for clicks. I am sad that you are reading YA fiction when you could be reading fiction for adults, because it’s never occurred to me that you can read both. Actually, I think there’s a law.
Except for the times I am binge-watching Mad Men and waxing nostalgic for a time that never was and a patriarchy that never died, I only read very smart, literary fiction that is complex and important, the kind of smart fiction that YA can never be, because I said so. Reading this important kind of grown-up fiction cleans out your colon. It puts hair on your chest. It’s like trying to open a locked door using only your head. It’s supposed to hurt. It breaks your teeth, knocks you unconscious and leaves cuts and bruises on your face and your body broken, like Hemingway fresh from the war. Don’t you want to be like Hemingway fresh from the war? Of course you do, because he was an old white man, on the sea, with a fish. These can be your battle scars, too. Wear them proudly. You are a grown-up.
“[Fantastic fiction] is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did.
…Do fairy tales teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfilment ‘fantasy’ in the technical psychological sense of the word—instead of facing the problems of the real world? …Let us again lay the fairy tale side by side with the school story or any other story which is labelled a 'Boy’s Book’ or a 'Girl’s Book’, as distinct from a `Children’s Book’. There is no doubt that both arouse, and imaginatively satisfy, wishes. We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairy land. We also long to be the immensely popular and successful schoolboy or schoolgirl, or the lucky boy or girl who discovers the spy’s plot or rides the horse that none of the cowboys can manage. But the two longings are very different. The second, especially when directed on something so close as school life, is ravenous and deadly serious. …We run to it from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world: it sends us back to the real world undivinely discontented. For it is all flattery to the ego. The pleasure consists in picturing oneself the object of admiration.
The other longing, that for fairy land, is very different. In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven. Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale?—really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. …The boy reading the school story of the type I have in mind desires success and is unhappy (once the book is over) because he can’t get it: the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring. For his mind has not been concentrated on himself, as it often is in the more realistic story.
I do not mean that school stories for boys and girls ought not to be written. I am only saying that they are far more liable to become 'fantasies’ in the clinical sense than fantastic stories are. And this distinction holds for adult reading too. The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.”
Thank you everyone who came out Saturday for the launch party for my book, Once Upon A Cloud! Your support has been so encouraging. Looking forward to the next one! Also a BIG thanks to Vromans bookstore for being so amazing…
“Consider the stakes. The lack of diversity and equity in the publishing industry is not a theoretical issue for us to intellectualize over coffee. It is an injustice. The destruction of libraries and burning of books has historically been used to strip peoples of their history and culture. Those in power continue to limit the ability of those they have subjugated to share their stories. They retain ultimate control of the narrative and their power.”