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Q&A: Professor Reflects on Surge of Interest in Children's Literature

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Barbara Kiefer, an associate professor in the department of curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, has studied children's books for more than a decade. Ms. Kiefer talked on that subject last week with Assistant Editor Debra Viadero.

Q. Publishers say that sales of children's books are booming. Does that mean more children are reading?

A. I don't know that we have any statistics on it. It's possible that more parents are buying. In the past, big sales of books have always been to libraries and, certainly, there are now many more children's-book stores across the country.

Another part of the phenomenon could be the whole-language movement, in that... children's books are being used across the curriculum in addition to textbooks.

My sense isn't that more children are reading because there are so many other things that are competing with books for children's interest.

Q. Are the children who need books most getting them?

A. No .... The kids who already have a fairly rich literary environment in the home are getting more.

This is coming to the forefront now because so many libraries are cutting back on librarians and book purchases. Certainly, the public library has been a place where children whose parents could not afford to buy books could get them.

Q. Has the quality of children's books improved as a result of the renewed interest?

A. If you were to break it out, you'd probably have a percentage of the total of children books that are really wonderful, high-quality literature, and others that sink to the bottom ....

Because so many more books are being written, [high-quality] books ... may get lost in the volumes of not-so-great writing for children. It's sometimes hard for parents to notice the difference.

Q. How is classroom use of children's books changing?

A. More and more teachers are pulling good children's literature to use really at the center of the curriculum. They're seeking out wonderful novels, poetry, and picture books, but they're also looking at great historical-information books. Lots of teachers are trying to use books in their math programs. Mitsumasu Anno has got a wonderful picture book, Anno's Math Games 111. He takes math concepts and plays around with them and illustrates them ....

Another example... is in science. A science textbook might give a couple of pages to volcanoes, but a good information book can really expand on that and cover it in a way that gives some in-depth coverage, but is also well written with good photos or illustrations.

Q. Some teachers and members of minority groups complain that textbooks don't contain enough multicultural information. Do children's books fill that gap?

A. Yes, and they're a much better source. Too often textbooks kind of pay surface attention [to minority groups.] It's a multicultural salad with so many African-Americans, so many disabled people, so many women. It's almost a formula. We have children's books written by members of minority cultures that are genuine stories told from those viewpoints.

Q. Can schools afford to buy children's books and textbooks?

A. It becomes pretty expensive, especially when, across the country, school budgets are in such trouble. I know so many teachers who just kind of bite the bullet and buy their own and find creative ways of getting books into the classroom. ... There are some districts where teachers have been given permission to take the money they spend on textbooks and use it to buy children's literature.

Q. Has children's literature changed much?

A. Yes .... Books written before the 1960's dealt with childhood as a safe and happy time, often looking very simply at a white, middle-class child ....

What you see now is a full range of problems, from homelessness--there's a wonderful book this year by Paula Fox, Monkey Island, that deals with a homeless child in New York and the full spectrum from homosexuality to divorce.

Q. What books would you recommend that all children read in school?

A. I would say Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, a beautifully written medem-day classic. You'll find kids reading it in 4th through 7th grades. And, for fantasy reading, Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting.

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