Like it or not, and paraphrasing a Chinese saying, we live in interesting times, and no one is more aware of this than today’s children. Although they often cannot articulate what they are feeling, like a sponge, they absorb the energy and dynamics of our times, whether through us as adults, through the media, from their peers, or, most importantly, from their teachers, parents, and members of their extended families. Children are expected to overcome this dynamic as they grow, and to accomplish all that is presented to them, including state-mandated educational requirements. But they are also expected to skillfully navigate a labyrinth of social and economic circumstances, and even to manage complex family, religious, social, or cultural demands. Many children are not equipped with the maturity or abilities to help them manage these often tricky circumstances, and parents and teachers can find themselves at a loss as to where to find resources to help them help their kids. But the ‘sponge-like’ nature of kids is itself part of the key to helping children and comes through the telling of stories. This is quite important, as how we learn to respond or react to life situations is often the by-product of emotional patterns that are set up in early childhood. It is even more important given that many children suffer silently, worried or fearful about happenings around them, and afraid to discuss their thoughts with the adults in their lives.
Fortunately, the continually growing body of children’s literature provides an important source of material to help them overcome their challenges, to help equip them with skills and solutions, to help them to respect the diversity of people, ideas, and experiences with which they are daily presented, to help empower children to articulate their feelings, and even to support them be more personally self-aware. Today’s children’s books are often thoughtfully created to help spark a conversation, to invite questions, and even give our kids strategies and ideas to successfully manage their biggest problems, many of which are frequently unknown to their parents, teachers, and caretakers.
With such a vast selection of titles across a wide set of categories, parents and educators can now choose from a veritable ocean of books. But rather than purchasing a book that merely looks fun or entertaining, now conscious buyers can discover and purchase books that are intended to spark a meaningful discussion. Teachers and parents can now invoke the growing concept of ‘critical literacy,’ an approach that encourages readers to actively analyze texts and offers strategies for what proponents describe as uncovering underlying messages. In short, critical literacy can provide core life skills that today’s children are not obtaining from mainstream media including television, video games, social media, or other forms of emotional stimuli.
Research demonstrates that even preschool and kindergarten-age children are capable of analyzing a story for its underlying messages and motivations. They can even make accurate comparisons about the story’s themes to their own life experience. They can assimilate author and story messages, make valid comparison and contrasts to life as they know it, and even fill in the blanks in a story that may have intentionally been built in for that very purpose. Parents can also invite their kids to make up their own version of the story or to create a different ending, which in turn offers substantial insight into a child’s world and unique point of view.
A well-written, thoughtfully crafted piece of children’s literature can allow children to leave their personal comfort zone and to compare and contrast the ideas in a book, which also invites critical thinking and critical learning. As children are invited to agree or disagree with the story and even the actions of its characters, parents and educators must first create an environment where children feel safe to discuss their viewpoint, to learn to express themselves, and also to understand that while stories and story characters are not real, that character experiences might be highly similar to something occurring in their own and very real life. Then children’s literature becomes a “jumping off” point for a larger and deeply meaningful conversation about personal issues, and a place where children can safely offer their deepest concerns and fears.
One fine example of a children’s book that was purpose-built to support the idea of critical literacy is How the Trees Got Their Voices by Susan Andra Lion. Winner of 17 national awards, this book offers a wonderful example of a book that, while offering a modern myth about how Mother Earth gave the trees their voices, also invites readers to embrace the idea that we are all consciously connected. It also offers around the margins of each two-page spread a series of factoids about the beautiful natural world of trees and also about our planet and some of its inhabitants. This medium of a two-level story provides children with meaningful insight into what a complex and connected world we live in. This book could spark endless conversation on a number of themes while reminding children that we don’t live here on Earth exclusive of each other.
Another great example of critical literacy at its best is Apollo the Misguided Missile by G.W. Wilkins, a lovely book which offers creative and truly outside-the-box solutions to the problem of bullying. Told through the story of a warlike tribe of Boars, the hero and heroine of this book are themselves children, and the solution they craft, and the courage they employ in doing so, make this book remarkable for its off-beat but deeply on-point alternative to the impending war the Tribe of Boar is planning. Author Wilkins has also added an entire page of questions for discussion, a perfect way to initiate a conversation with kids about creating unusual solutions and about the importance of making their voice heard.
Younger children could benefit enormously from the lessons offered in Hold On, Toby by Janet Bierbower-Boucher, a picture/story book about a little leaf named Toby and his life from a small bud to a full-blown, autumn-painted leaf. Bierbower-Boucher, herself a former educator, likely well understood the value of a good story that invites discussion and critical thinking. Her gorgeously-illustrated story walks kids, in a short book about the seasons, through the cycle of life, offering a parallel story about Big People and Little People, who are also experiencing the seasons of Toby’s life in different ways. This book will help children to become more deeply aware of the turning of the seasons and of the way the world around them changes – something on which they can rely with certainty and consistency. Using critical literacy questions, parents and educators have the opportunity to help children recognize their own role, and the movement of their own life, in the turning of the seasons.
Perhaps one of my favorites in the category of conscious stories for children is the story of White Butterfly and Her Wings of Many Colors, also by Susan Andra Lion, based on a story by Arnold Bustillo. This book is tailor-made for the application of critical literacy. The story of White Butterfly, her heroic journey and her inner expedition from disliking her white wings back to learning the core lesson of loving herself exactly as she originally was, presents so many opportunities, especially for pre-teen and tween girls, to discuss their own body image and to learn and assimilate why they are perfect exactly as they are.
Titles that invite the application of critical literacy are not limited to only works of fiction. Children’s non-fiction is a growing and important body of work and can also offer core life lessons to the same extent as stories. Sammy the Seahorse by Ann Driscoll and Martha Driscoll is one excellent example of a book that does this very well: Sammy offers children a glimpse into the world of seahorses, an endangered species, helping them to learn about and appreciate a lifeform they likely rarely encounter. Using critical literacy techniques, kids can increase their understanding about seahorses and what makes them special and unique. They can gain an appreciation and respect for why other forms of life are so important and have the additional opportunity to increase their tolerance for those species that are quite ‘different’ from others.
As I mentioned earlier, a child’s seemingly effortless ability to soak up the world and energy around them can be put to effective use. Andrew Newman’s Conscious Bedtime Stories series provide a very fine example of short bedtime books. Newman’s set of 12 children’s bedtime stories is designed to make significant use of the last 20 minutes of each day by encouraging bonding using Snuggle Breathing, and his richly designed stories each highlight a central life skill or value. These include finding inner quiet, loving their bodies, recognizing ‘sticky thoughts,’ finding their inner light and inner happiness, recognizing the love and support around them, learning to make choices, and accessing their hearts. Newman’s books are written to offer the best in conscious parenting stories; each ends with a set of questions or easy activities to help children integrate the story’s message into their own life experience. Perhaps most fun is the full page of stickers at the back of each book so that children can literally carry the story and its meaning with them.
While these are great examples of recent titles that are significant vehicles for or even designed to accommodate critical literacy, there are also hundreds of thousands of others. If you are wondering whether to buy children’s books in print or as an e-book, consider that The Association of American Publishers in summer 2016 reported that books, and especially books in print, are still the format of choice. Their study indicated that US publishing trends included a return to print and significant growth of consumer audiobooks as eBooks decline. Especially for children’s books, where the illustration is very often a key part of the book experience (and not formatted on separate pages from the text, which is often true of ebooks), print books might be an excellent format to use when engaging your children in active critical literacy conversations. But no matter which format you choose – book, audiobook, or ebook, the content and the conversation you can spark from it is what truly matters.
Finally, using critical literacy as part of a conscious parenting approach is an easy two-step process. Experts might disagree about defines conscious parenting, but it often includes the idea that conscious parents can help their children to make emotionally intelligent choices. Conscious parents themselves can first do this by becoming more aware of their own language, their responses, and their attitudes to occurrences in their own life. Conscious parenting is frequently based on the idea of creating relationships with children rather than merely exerting control. Using their heightened awareness, they can then help to shape their children through the use of impactful children’s literature that helps them to have a guided conversation with their kids about a story that also helps the parent to grow as well. In this way, they significantly imprint the emotional patterns being established in their young children in a positive and loving way and they will build a relationship with their children that will support them through their lives.
In the final analysis the use of both conscious parenting and critical literacy offer important ways that both parents and educators can help to shape the children of tomorrow, who will truly make our world what it will be. The saying that children are our future is exactly true. The humans we shape today that will then shape tomorrow’s world should be the responsibility of each of us. Even if you are not an educator, you can be a part of this process by supporting children’s literature, conscious parenting, and critical literacy by sharing ideas and books, by reading to and with children, and even volunteering to read stories at your local library. Finally, by telling others about these important ideas – critical literacy and conscious parenting — you can change our world for the better, both for today and tomorrow.
About the Author: Karen Stuth is the co-owner of Satiama, LLC (www.satiama.com), an award-winning blogger, and a publishing consultant who loves to assist authors in bringing their work to fruition (www.satiamawritersresource.com). All books listed above are available at a local bookstore, on Amazon, and at Satiama.com.