Why we must read stories to our children

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Perhaps the one thing that all parents love to do for their children is tell them bedtime stories.

These might be oral or written. But is it not strange that some of the greatest writers of stories for children never had children of their own?

Think of the British Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), author of Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, or of the Danish Hans Christian Andersen, author of classics such as The Little Mermaid, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Hardy Tin Soldier, The Ugly Duckling and The Snow Queen.

Both remained unmarried and childless. Jacob Grimm, one of the two Grimm Brothers who collected and rewrote German folk stories into immortal fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, also never married.

And when Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), the American author of illustrated classics like Horton Hatches the Egg and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, was asked why he and his wife did not have children, he is reported to have replied, "You have 'em; I'll entertain 'em."

I cannot claim to belong to that club, having written The Glum Peacocknot for other people's entertainment but for that of my own children. That it got published as a book is, of course, another matter.

As someone who started off publishing poetry and novels, I was not expected to write The Glum Peacock, which is a simple fable, in rhyming, loosely metered verse for young children.

Of course, that is not the way I see it. I never set out to write "serious" or "high" literature. For me, there are only two kinds of literature – good and bad – though both come in various shades, and one need not like all shades of good literature.

For me, good literature is further divided into what my friend, the French writer Sébastien Doubinsky, conveniently dubs "soft" and "hard" literature. Hard literature, he claims, engages with the world, literature and language in creative, open, radical or enabling ways.

Soft literature, by inference, is competent stuff that never pushes the boundaries of the established – in the world or in language.

One can claim that good children's literature also comes in these two varieties – soft and hard.

Soft children's literature has a soporific effect on the child: it is meant to make Jack a "good" boy and go to bed on time, as the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock put it in an interview.

But the kind of children's literature that I (and Moorcock) like is meant to make Jack and Jill engage with their world, learn to think for themselves, and live out their lives in creative and satisfying ways.

That is the kind of children's literature I try to read out to my children, and to create for them.

This is not to be confused with moralising or dourness; good "hard" literature is always "fun" in an intelligent way, and children's literature doubly so.

Life and the world can be hard and "unfair", but they are also fun and exciting; in any case, they are what we have. Some might say: they are all we have.

One of the worst crimes parents are capable of is depriving their children of their inherent sense of wonder and excitement at being alive.

Hence, all good writers know that seriousness is not dourness, just as "fun" is not empty-headedness. Alas, it is something that seems to be on the verge of getting forgotten in the publishing, marketing and editing world these days.

The Article First Appeared In Mail Today

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