Why Kid Lit Matters

by Janae Marks
published in Community

Do you remember when you first fell in love with reading? I’m going to guess that for most of you, it was when you were a child. Maybe, like for me, it was love at first picture book. Or maybe a teacher or librarian handed you a book that resonated with you, and you kept going back for more. Or depending on when you were born, maybe you watched a lot of episodes of Reading Rainbow.

I think everyone will agree that it’s important for children to read. But what about the value of the stories themselves?

Before we dive in, let me give you a quick rundown of what I mean by Kid Lit. It’s a general term encompassing books for babies, toddlers, kids and teens. It includes board books, picture books, early readers, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult books. Check out this Introduction to Kid Lit from the DIY MFA archives for some examples from each of those categories.

I devoured children’s books as a kid, but by the time I was in high school, I started exclusively reading adult fiction. (No, not the dirty kind! I mean the books you find in the Fiction section of a bookstore.) That’s because as a teenager in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, young adult literature was only starting to become popular, and it didn’t explode until I was in college. By that point, I was an English major, reading a ton of classic literature. I was also writing literary short stories in my creative writing classes.

But then in my senior year, I saw a class on the roster called “Girls’ Books.” I was intrigued by the title—and frankly, tired of reading so many classics—so I enrolled. Not surprisingly, the class was full of ladies, and we spent the semester reading and discussing familiar girls’ books from our childhoods. Little Women. The Secret Garden. Harriet the Spy. We also read some more contemporary books like Weetzie Bat and The Golden Compass. We talked about themes like femininity, cultural values, and diversity. I hadn’t read some of those books in a long time, and others I hadn’t read before. It was the first time that I thought about children’s books as something more than a literacy tool or entertainment for kids. They can have a much bigger purpose.

That class was life changing, as it steered me toward my passion: reading and writing Kid Lit.

So, why does Kid Lit matter?

It creates community

Reading may be a solitary activity, but it brings people together. This is especially true for Kid Lit. Just look at the Harry Potter fandom. Each time a new book in the series came out, kids (and adults) everywhere dressed up as their favorite characters and went to the midnight releases. Now there are movies, fan sites, and festivals. Kids are writing Harry Potter fan fiction and joining Quidditch teams. There’s even an entire Harry Potter theme park, and all of this stemmed from a series of children’s books! What a time to be alive, right? Most kids want to feel like they belong somewhere, and books are a great way to make friends. Not only within their own towns, but with the help of social media, they can connect to other book lovers around the world.

It introduces young readers to how the world works

These days, you can find picture books about every topic imaginable. Parents don’t only want their kids to learn to read and build their vocabulary; they also want them to learn how to navigate the world around them. Children’s books aren’t as preachy as they used to be. Through stories and illustrations, they show kids little snippets of life, and help them understand how things work. One great example is Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney, which I’ve been reading with my toddler. In it, Mama Llama puts Baby Llama to bed, but then he wakes up crying. Mama Llama, who’s in the middle of something downstairs, doesn’t hear him right away. When she finally makes it up to him, he’s very upset. She tells him that sometimes mamas are busy, but assures him that even if she’s not right there, she’s always nearby. That reassurance helps Baby Llama go right back to sleep.

It gives young readers a safe space to process their thoughts and feelings

This is especially true for middle grade and young adult books. Adolescents go through so much change, and experience a lot of firsts. First crushes. First periods. First kisses. First heartbreaks. Even if they aren’t experiencing all of those milestones yet, books are a safe space for them to explore what it will be like—in stories that are appropriate for them, with characters they can relate to. Kids this age also witness and experience a lot of hardship (family troubles, death, addiction, etc.) and books can help them cope. Reading about characters just like them overcoming these obstacles can inspire them to do the same.

It reinforces their identity

When you’re able to read a book about a character who looks like you, you can take so much more out of the story. The bad news is that unfortunately, a lot of kids aren’t seeing themselves in enough books—namely, people of color, the LGBTQIA community, people with disabilities, and religious minority groups. But the good news is that the We Need Diverse Books organization has brought awareness to the problem, and it’s starting to change. One recent success is The Hate U Give, a young adult novel by author Angie Thomas that’s received a ton of media coverage, and has held the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. It features a black main character, with a story inspired by recent police shootings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Written by a black author herself, this book has given a voice to a lot of teens who haven’t felt represented in children’s literature. This particular novel is helping all kids process what they’ve seen in the news or in their own communities.

There’s so much more to be said about this amazing category of literature, and I’m thrilled to launch this monthly Kid Lit column. It’s not only for children, as I’ll be discussing some more in my next article! In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Do you read or write Kid Lit? What are some of your favorite books?

Janae Marks writes contemporary fiction for kids and teens. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, and is an active member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She lives in New England with her husband and daughter.

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