Children are more intelligent than we sometimes give them credit for; I’ve become even more conscious of that since becoming a father. When I worked in libraries some 20 years ago, I used to be in charge of the storytime sessions for children, and I dreaded it at first; the children scared me. But as I got into it and learnt the rhythm and cadence of connecting with children and stories, I found myself enjoying it, and found myself in awe of writers who could communicate with children without patronising them.
I used to love reading Owl Babies by Martin Waddell if the audience was particularly young, and I was in libraries when the early Harry Potter books came out (what a place to be!); J K Rowling got a connection going with her audience, and the books matured as they did. She never spoke down to them and nor did she ever patronise them; the massive success of the series tells you just how well children and teenagers felt her equal.
I regularly listen to a podcast called The Rest is History, with historians Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland (who does not moonlight as Spider-Man), and I’ve recently caught up with an episode in which they discuss writing about history for a younger audience. I heartily recommend their discussion, as it inspired me to really think about books and series that engage children in the facts – or fiction – of a story. Something one of the authors caught my ear as they talked about writing history for children, and how each new generation comes to the subject completely anew – so there’s always something to find fresh in each era and event. Children respond so well to interesting and unusual facts, and cope well with the … unusual; the podcasters mentioned the story of Henry VIII, who used to have regular enemas via a large tube inserted up his backside. Disgusting? Yes, absolutely. Something that would put children off? Not a chance; it was often said to be their favourite bit of the story.
But, as Sandbrook and Holland point out, whilst you can go further than you might think in introducing children to stories and honest facts, you don’t have to go into the “pornography of violence” – fetishising it, in my own words; when discussing Hitler’s final solution, they point out, “you don’t have to take the children into the gas chamber” when discussing the things Hitler did. We need to face up to what happened in a dark era of our history, but we don’t need to go through every single step of the way.
As my son has grown up, he’s started to be curious about the human body and sex; it’s discussed at school, and I am always honest with him. We use the correct terms for the parts of the human body, discuss consent, and encourage questions. I don’t shy away from honest discussions, but neither do I go over the top; I’m a single parent as well, so I need to remember to discuss consent and help him develop female role models as well. He has just turned 11 as I write this, so I need to be sensitive in how I share information on a delicate topics; being honest without being overcomplicated, and definitely not patronising him.
He wasn’t overly interested in stories and narratives, more focused on facts and lists. I wanted to help him some stories that he could enjoy, so I decided from the moment he came home to live with me just as he turned eight that I would not give him books that were basic. I wanted to appeal to his intellect. When we clicked with the Harry Potter series, and then the Rick Riordan books, we were immediately onto a winner – especially when he named his favourite teddy Poseidon. I cheered a lot that day. But both the fiction and non-fiction we have discovered together has broaded his mind and his vocabulary. I did not force-feed my choices of stories onto him – I was born in the eighties, and his preferences are inevitably going to be different to mine; he needed to feel that he had a choice, because he had a right to grow his sense of plot and character at his own pace.
Stories have made him a more well-rounded person, because he feels like he is an equal to the characters; in the book we just finished (by Rick Riordon), once of the main characters – who had featured in several books – dies. Whilst the book was fantasy, it did not bring him back by a familar trope of … oh, I don’t know, there are too many to choose from. The character’s death dealt an emotional punch to both of us, I don’t mind admitting, and we sat in quiet contemplation as we considered what his death meant for the plot. Bryan – my son – even wondered if the character would come back to life, but we talked about it later, and we both agreed that it made sense for the character not to return. It helped us talk about death in a way I hadn’t imagined we ever would at his young age, and I’m glad it did.
Newsround is another opportunity for children to learn; Bryan reads and watches it regularly, both at home and at school,. With the current situation in Ukraine, I struggled to understand how I should talk to him about it; I ended up taking advice from Newsround, as it had a lot of useful articles that – again – didn’t talk down to its audience, but also didn’t need to be overly graphic in its descriptions of some of the atrocities that the Ukranians have experienced. I’m so grateful, and we have pulled out the globe on so many occasions to study the region as we look at its history and current politics. He’s a lot more informed, and I’m more open-minded to new and unusual questions.
Communicating with children is so important; they need to be listened to and respected, because they are human beings, not another species. Crafting a narrative that allows children to engage in the world round them is such a good thing; it makes them even more interested and interesting, and they deserve our respect when we share stories with them.