Children’s literature expert discusses how to instil passion for books in young readers

Children's literature expert Leonard MarcustellsCici George how he helps nurture a lifelong passion for the written word

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 7:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 7:14pm

American historian and writer Leonard Marcus is widely considered an authority on children's literature yet he struggled to learn to read as a child. "I was very verbal, but I just couldn't figure out how to read," Marcus says.

A tutor recognised, however, that he liked to talk and had an extensive vocabulary, so she asked him to write something to read to her. "I wrote a poem, and since I had written it myself it was easy to read."

Since then, reading and writing have become an integral part of Marcus' life, and he has gone on to write several books on children's literature, including Show Me a Story!, Minders of Make-Believe; Storied City; and The Wand in the Word.

He began delving into children's literature when he devoted a senior paper to American children's books, a largely unexplored subject in the early 1970s, while studying history at Yale. The books were "reflections of ideas about the essential core of a child's nature", he says, and the different thinking they revealed was fascinating as a reflection of historical change.

That led to reviewing books for The Washington Post, The New York Times and later for Parenting magazine, for which he has written a column since its inception in 1987.

It has given him the opportunity to meet many leading picture book authors such as Robert McCloskey, Helen Oxenbury and Maurice Sendak, whom he describes as "irreverent". The author of the much-loved Where The Wild Things Are, Sendak "liked to say shocking things", which didn't come as a surprise, Marcus says. "You could see he had a rebellious nature."

Sendak's books featured believable youngsters, rather than idealised characters.

"He was trying to present a more accurate picture about how children live and feel, to show they are not alone in these feelings. He brought his own childhood into a story. The term 'wild thing' in Yiddish is what his mother called him when he acted up as a child."

He says that Eric Carle, the author of international favourites The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear Brown Bear, was able to use his previous experience as an advertising executive to create a style of illustration that can be understood around the world.

"There are no cultural references in his books that are limiting," says Marcus.

He recalls being on a plane with Carle en route to Japan for a conference when the pilot brought over a bottle of wine and asked for his autograph. "It gives you a hint of how widespread his popularity is."

Married to picture book artist Amy Schwartz, Marcus had a ringside view of the creative process. "I've learnt about the nuts and bolts of making books so I have a better appreciation of the finished books."

Not surprisingly, Marcus tried his hand at creating picture books too: he wrote Petrouchka: A Ballet Cut-Out Book and collaborated with his wife on Oscar: The Big Adventure of a Little Sock Monkey.

But these were side ventures, he says. "I always felt more comfortable with true stories."

Among other projects, Marcus embarked on a literary biography of Margaret Wise Brown which took a decade to complete. Marcus's son Jacob was born during the week of its release, so he was elated at the chance to read Wise Brown's most famous work, Goodnight Moon, to him. To his surprise, his young son was bored by the tale.

"I realised not all children like the same famous books. It broadened my idea of what the right books for children are."

In fact, some of the books Jacob loved, such as the Berenstain Bears series, Marcus would not have recommended as a critic.

"The development of the story was orderly, methodical and thorough. My son grew up to study chemistry. It turned out he had a scientific bent of mind and liked structure."

Today, the emergence of e-books for children has divided critics. While the best digital books are moving in the direction of animated films, traditional picture books are moving towards the art book.

Marcus believes that each form will veer towards its strengths. Traditional books can vary in size and shape and are suited to promoting parent-child bonding.

But there's also a "totemic aspect" to books. "As an adult, there are books I want to hold, pick up and see what's inside. Children have some of that too. On the other hand, they're clearly living in a digital world and in some cases, it seems like they're more ready to pick up a handheld device than a book."

However, many initial attempts at e-books have been misguided in being too educational, says Marcus, who was in Hong Kong last month to give a series of talks to parents and teachers organised by charity Bring Me a Book.

"When you think about how distracted kids are these days, to make the books another distraction seems like the wrong idea. Do we really need to see the dog's tail wag? Wouldn't it be better to leave that part to the imagination?"

While many are concerned about a decline in reading habits, Marcus points to the Harry Potter phenomenon as an encouraging sign. "It's mind-blowing to see how ardent kids became about those books. That tells me there is a place for reading in this world.

"In Hong Kong, the mainland and Singapore, there seems to be the common thread of reading for the purpose of education, as preparation for professional life," says Marcus. "There is less appreciation of the possibility that the first experience of books could be one of enjoyment and that would set the stage for other kinds of reading to follow."

The best way to help children become serious, lifelong readers, he says, is to first show them that reading is enjoyable, to let it be part of their everyday lives.

What makes a great children's book?

Marcus says most children's books have at their core a character that children can identify strongly with on an emotional level. "There has to be emotional truth to a great children's book."

He says that often the books are dealing with basic issues - what it's like to be part of the family, friendship, loneliness, what it's like to go off on your own and risk the danger of adventure.

"We don't outgrow those core concerns. That's why the really good children's books have something to say to people of other age groups, too."