On May 3 this year, we started celebration of the annual Children’s Book Week and the question must be asked. In this modern, ever-changing digital world are children’s books still relevant?
A spoiler: the answer is YES.
Books in various forms have for three millennia provided a way of recording history first on clay tablets and later as paper-printed books. From the early days they were used to record religious doctrines, political manifestos and social statements. Books of instruction and teaching were also among the early uses for the printed document. Initially books were expensive and reserved for important matters rather than entertainment. Then came fiction.
The first recorded fiction book was written in the 1170s by Chrétien de Troyes and was a story about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Since then millions of fiction books have been printed and read by billions of people worldwide. Worldwide sales amounted to a record of over 750 million in 2020, spurred to some extent by the COVID-19 lockdown. Children’s book grew even faster.
This is amazing as in today’s world there are so many alternatives, particularly in the digital space.
Let’s pop back in time twenty or thirty years. This was the pre-digital age and books were the mainstay of children’s experience as they grew up. They were enjoyed, and treasured. Initially, the picture book was the vehicle that parents and grandparents used to read to toddlers before they could read for themselves. Reading aloud to the toddler was often undertaken the last thing at night before the toddler went to sleep – the parent curled up on the toddler’s bed and read them a bedtime story while they looked on reveling in the story and the pictures in the book. The vibrant pictures which went along with the story transported the child into a fantasy world where they could encounter dragons, beautiful princesses, handsome princes and terrible villains and forget the rigors of the day.
As children grew, they became more independent and pushed themselves to be able to read by themselves. They would stumble over the words and sentences initially with simple books but they would master them. Then later, they would graduate to more complex books. Since reading is fundamental, this path to acquisition of the skill was entertaining and rewarding for the child. How else could a child learn to read?
In that age toys also figured in children’s experience. Boys had a raft of toy soldiers and cowboy figures. Girls had dolls and doll houses. Not much has changed today. The number one toy for girls on Amazon now is a Barbie Doll house and for boys, is an action hero. Each child acts out imaginary scenes with the soldiers being victorious or rearranging the furniture in the dolls’ house
Books and toys have two main roles – to entertain and to educate. In terms of education, educational toys and games have emerged to teach basic skills like colors, reading, math, logic. The entry point to the digital world came with these educational toys which were well suited for teaching these skills. But it came down to books to teach the socio emotional skills like kindness, courage, honesty, independence and confidence. Teaching these skills requires a level of sophistication and subtlety which is better taught with stories either imagined with the use of toys or in a book.
The rise of the machines? Specialized electronic tablets are available for toddlers or even earlier ages. Games which used to be confined to cards and dice and boards have given way to television sets and controllers but, now inexpensive, games on smart phones are prevalent. Look around you the next time you visit a restaurant. On tables where there are families, you’ll probably see most of the kids, busily using smart phones to play games, text friends and so on. The family conversations which were prevalent before the age of the smart phone are gone.
So, have these digital products taken over from the physical books and toys? Have they taken a position and thrown books and toys out the window? In some families they have. And we believe that is a detrimental step. Parents are busy and it is easy to lose the relationships with their children by sitting them in front of TVs or giving them a gaming device. What is missing here is the parent child connection. And reading a book together can address this issue.
While the technology brings a lot of advantages and certainly does well teaching mechanical skills and entertaining, using them alone risks neglecting the social or softer skills and the parent child interchange. For these we need stories which teach.
While movies and audio books are good, books are better. If the child is watching a movie it runs at a pace set by the movie producer and discussion about the plot is difficult. In a picture book, when the parent or grandparent is reading the book and showing the child the pictures the dynamic is different. The reader can stop and ask questions of the child. Do you like this character? What do you think will happen next? Was what he/she just did in the story a good thing? And the reader can answer the child’s questions. Why is the character so mean?
Are digital products bad? No, but they need to be complemented with ways to build the parent child connection and books provide a better path for this. Reading a book together ensures that dialog, builds the socio emotional traits and entertains the child.
So, yes. The children’s books are still relevant and perhaps more so than ever before.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Yes, we really believe in what we have set out above.
So much so that we have written the Five Enchanted Mermaids’ stories in picture book format for reading to toddlers with stories that teach socio-emotional skills, e.g., honesty, and independence, as well as being entertaining. Each mermaid has a different ethnicity and we use this to showcase diversity.
About the Mermaids:
The Five Enchanted Mermaids celebrate diversity in our world and the belief that each child deserves to have a mermaid that looks like them. Through their individual personalities and traits, they weave stories that help teach skills for children in this age group.
The idea for the Five Enchanted Mermaids was born to provide a fun but educational backdrop for girls aged 3 to 7 years. The characters address emotional skills (making friends, resolving conflicts, coping with change, making their own choices and “being good people”) and educational skills (learning to read, the alphabet, counting, symmetrical shapes, time, value of monetary coins/notes) that are important at that age in the development of young girls.
The stories use each of the diverse mermaids as a role model for behavior and values.
LifeMadeSimple, LLC and acclaimed children’s book author, Lois Petren, are collaborating to provide a series of books, party accessories and other appropriate items to support these goals.
Visit us at www.fiveenchantedmermaids.com