We believe that storybooks are awesome and are incredibly useful while teaching English. But, this holds only for “good” storybooks, obviously. But what is a “good” storybook?
Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself. ― George Bernard Shaw
Award-winning author Neil Gaiman says that “there is no such thing as a bad children’s book.” He hates it when adults (like us) criticize children’s books. “It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.” His suggestion is to let children pick their books.
In an ideal world, that would be awesome. But, we do have a class to take, and we have to pick a book. And so, let’s keep the morality of whether or not to judge books as good and bad aside for now.
Let’s start by asking a question: what is the goal of your class? Is it to improve language? To teach morals or life lessons? Just for fun? You might have multiple goals. Always keep your goal in mind while picking books for class.
The very basic requirement is to pick books with good language. Contemporary language is good but slang is not. Breezy language is acceptable, but grammatical errors are not. Classical language is OK but if it’s too dense then it’s a no-go.
Some teachers love moral stories in the classroom. Some teachers hate it. The argument against moral stories is that – if the book spells out the moral, then children don’t get a chance to think for themselves.
In Shel Silverstein’s all-time classic The Giving Tree, The Boy takes and takes from The Tree. A good reading of the book will leave your children crying for The Tree. The book opens the door for children to wonder who do we indiscriminately take from – our parents, our country, mother nature. The author does not end the story by saying, “and so children, that is why we should not take from mother nature.”
While the book doesn’t have a stated “moral,” it does have a lesson, a theme, a learning objective. We shouldn’t shy away from admitting that we like to offer books with learning objectives to our kids. BLPS schools use Ramya’s Snack Box to introduce sharing and The Big Bad Bull to talk about bullying.
The Room on the Broom is a wonderful book in which a witch shares her broom with strangers, gets into trouble for it and is rescued by the same strangers. This book was illustrated by German artist Axel Sheffler, whose acceptance speech for the Illustrator of the Year award (British Book Awards 2018) makes us wonder if Brexit would have happened if more Brits had read this book.
Moral of the story? Pick books with great learning objectives, but not those which sermonize. Or summarize the moral on the last page. Let it be subtle.
A good children’s book can take a serious subject and wrap it up in an interesting story and deliver it in an engaging way. With a little effort, you can find a book on any topic. (Check out this list of books on climate change.)
Talking about difficult subjects like death, caste, sexuality and the various other ‘taboo topics’ can become relatively easy with the help of a children’s book. Years ago, when I narrated The Bridge to Terebithia to my 6th-grade class, they reacted with sadness and empathy. A few boys even admitted that they cried while reading the ending.
The BLPS storytellers talk about an incident when kids refused to pick up Kali and the Rat Snake, a story about a boy from the Irula tribe who are snake-catchers. Why? The boy on the cover was dark-skinned and looked ‘weird’. The storytellers took the opportunity to facilitate a conversation about beauty norms, caste and exclusion. Perceptions changed, the kids read the book, and love it.
The world changed for the better, albeit just a little bit.
How would you feel if your mother gave you a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People? Or if your boss gave you a copy of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff? Not too good? It’s the same for children. We can’t overdo the books-with-deeper-meaning thing.
Storybooks need to be fun and engaging. In George’s marvellous medicine, George makes a magic potion that does terrible things to his awful grandma. The plotline is absurd, but the kids love it. Storybooks can be engaging for many reasons – lovable characters, gorgeous settings, thrilling action, fast-paced plot, humour, romance, nostalgia, beautiful pictures, newness, … the list is endless.
The tell of an engaging book is simple – Do you feel like turning the page? Or do you find yourself thinking about your next meal?
Ideally, you would want to pick a book that’s just a little hard for the reader. It can’t be easy because then they have nothing to learn. It can’t be very hard because then they won’t be able to learn anything.
However, it’s not easy to estimate the reading level of a class. Plus, different children are at different reading levels within the class. One option is to take a set of books to class and let the children decide what they want to read individually.
The other option is to take multiple copies of the same book and allow for peer learning to work its magic. In the BLPS pilot, back in 2010, we had taken 40 copies of a book to a class of 200 children over 5 sections. The advanced readers helped the slow readers and the book got read by 160 children – 80% of the class!
The good book checklist
I’ve summarized all the points we spoke about in this good book checklist. You could use this simple format to evaluate a book.
|Name of the Book||________________________________|
|Parameter||What I Like||What I Don’t Like|
Where to Find Books?
I am lucky to work in an office full of children’s books. But not everyone has access to such good luck. So where does one go to search for books?
The first stop is Amazon.in. They have a great children’s bookshelf section, curated by top-notch editors and publishers. You can search for a book, of course. But you can also use the “Customers who bought this item also bought” feature at the bottom of the page to discover new books. Another benefit of using Amazon is that you are always aware of the price of a book, and let’s admit it: sometimes there are budget constraints.
There are a lot of online facebook pages and groups that talk about children’s literature. If you’re looking for a specific group, then the community can help you find it. Reading Raccoons is one such group.
Then there’s us. We help schools across India find books for classrooms, and reaching us is as simple as leaving a comment in this article, or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Once you get your hands on the book, you’re probably wondering how to use these books in class. Don’t worry! We’ll be back next week with storytelling tips and tricks.