Sometimes we feel as though we can match a person to a book at first glance. But people are endlessly surprising, especially in the books that they read. (Check anyone’s Goodreads.) I imagine this is true everywhere, but it feels especially true as a children’s bookseller in small-town America.
KidLit and Americans
I want to talk about the importance of children’s literature in America today, and to give you some recommendations for books I think make us all better Americans.
In a way, the element of surprise I experience daily as a bookseller feels like a microcosm of the American experience: someone somewhere is always surprising you, in part because of the diversity inherent in our national makeup.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence, then, that this experience is especially vivid in a children’s bookstore.
In so many ways, children’s literature is vital to us as citizens. Learning to read and love books at a young age encourages a hunger for knowledge in a climate that is often hostile to such things.
Children’s literature also teaches and fosters empathy, which is a necessary skill if we want to fill our country with kind and thoughtful citizens who are concerned, as Americans have always claimed to be, with the good of the people.
When a child reaches for a book, it is these things they are reaching for - empathy, knowledge, and thoughtfulness.
Children’s literature, perhaps most of all, is a place where voices that have historically been silenced, overlooked, or forgotten find their way into the light. This is not because children’s literature is less sophisticated than adult literature, but just the opposite.
Children’s books provide a unique and sophisticated storytelling medium that is often lacking in grown-up books. Here, stories can be brought to life in playful ways via interactive books, or in multiple ways via illustrations and picture book design. Authors can convey different parts of their story they couldn’t in other forms of media.
Maybe the most important part of children’s literature as a unique storytelling medium is that it brings stories to those who would rarely hear them otherwise - at least, not for many years. As adults, we often take for granted our exposure to different people and places without realizing that children don’t often have access to these experiences. They can, however, get a good start through books.
In a time where isolation and fear are constantly present in the American consciousness, the mixture of stories and young minds is a recipe for hope. Children’s literature can show us how to resist these hard things, and in turn, how to be better Americans.
Here are a few books that do just that, all available in The Story Shop’s online store.
Click the titles for a link to order.
Note: These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only American classics that fit this list. However, I do want to make a case for including both of these titles and not just To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’s characterization in Go Set a Watchman, especially when contrasted with Scout’s, is a crucial reminder of our tendency to idealize parts of our history. In Watchman, Lee casts American history in a revealing light rather than black-and-white shadow, and this context is, I think, an important companion to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is one of my very favorites.
I hope this list inspires you this Independence Day. Happy Fourth, and as always, happy reading!