I was in fifth grade when J.K. Rowling released Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S. I didn’t read it until the seventh grade, but I tore through the first few books and became one of those kids who couldn’t wait until the next edition came out. Through seven novels, Harry Potter taught my generation a lot—and does so for millions of kid readers all over the world to this day. Researchers recently revealed that Harry Potter taught us much more than the rules of Quidditch.
As reported in The New York Times, the Journal of Applied Psychology recently published a study revealing that story-reading can affect how kids feel about currently stigmatized groups in our society, from immigrants to homosexuals. Specifically, kids who “read stories about characters from a culture similar to their own cooperating with characters from an unfamiliar culture, they later display fewer stereotypes, and more positive attitudes, about the people belonging to the dissimilar group.”
I remember when Draco Malfoy called Hermione Granger a Mudblood for the first time. It made my blood boil. I felt triumphant when Harry stood up for his friend. And that’s exactly the point. I had sympathy for Hermione. I felt nasty treatment towards her as an outsider was outrageous. This study shows much the same. Kids who read and discussed passages like these (about the in-group , like Harry, interacting positively with the out-group, like Hermione) held more positive views about the out-group of their own culture, like immigrants. On the other hand, kids who read and discussed Harry Potter passages that didn’t address prejudice, showed no change in their attitudes towards ostracized groups. As Harry entertained me, he also taught me.
He teaches the power of our own choices when he chooses Gryffindor under the Sorting Hat. He teaches what it is to fight for a greater cause. He teaches us to treat each other kindly, Muggle or Mudblood or Pure Blood.
This is exciting news not only for readers of Harry Potter, but any book that captures similar situations. Kids can learn to be more compassionate, accepting, and tolerant through reading. If that’s not a reason raise a reader, I don’t know what is.
In addition to the announcement, the AAP has also partnered with four organizations, the Clinton Foundation, Too Small to Fail, Scholastic, and Reach Out and Read, to implement the new policy. The AAP and Too Small to Fail are creating a toolkit to include guidelines for parents on the importance of reading from infancy, which will be distributed to 62,000 pediatricians in the AAP network. Scholastic is also donating 50,000 children’s books that Reach Out and Read will distribute to 20,000 medical providers.
The AAP recommends restricting TV time for kids under 2 in favor of interactive play, and reading books can certainly be a part of that. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Pamela High, M.D., the lead author on the AAP early literacy policy, recommends that parents focus on the 5 Rs of early education: read together, rhyme and play with words, set consistent routines, reward with praise, and develop a strong relationship.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by LeVar Burton, co-founder of the award-winning Reading Rainbow digital library, host of the original PBS series, and lifelong children’s literacy advocate. Burton is also known for his distinguished TV roles as the young Kunta Kinte on Roots and Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Follow LeVar (@levarburton) and Reading Rainbow (@ReadingRainbow) on Twitter.
People always ask me, “What is your favorite book?” I always give the same answer: “The book that I am reading right now!” From the moment I first cracked the code, it has always been the power of the word made whole in my imagination that has kept me coming back for more.
My first real love in reading was comics. I come from a military family, and for a young American growing up on an Army base in Germany, comics were treasured items from back home. Comics were not only a connective thread to American culture; they were the currency that dominated our social interactions. Every Saturday morning, I would take the box of comics I had finished and was willing to part with, and join the sea of kids on base, trading comics with one another. It was always a thrill getting something brand-new to read, even if the book was already thoroughly used! Science fiction became my genre of choice as a teenager and it still is to this day. Sci-fi invites us to contemplate what I believe are two of the most powerful words in language: what if. It also encouraged me, as a young man faced with the realities of racism, prejudice, and tremendous social upheaval, to imagine a future as I hoped it would become. My reading diet now runs the gamut from biographies to history to mysteries to the occasional Marvel or DC comic title of my youth. It all depends on my mood. It really is the experience of reading that brings me pleasure.
But our kids are not us—and as parents we all know this all too well. The subjects that interest us may not interest them. When our kids are young, the best way I know to encourage them to read is to allow them to pick the subject, the format, and the way in which they experience the written word. Most kids love it when their parents read to them, so I encourage you to read to your children as much as possible. Snuggling up and reading together not only provides comfort and security, but it also emphasizes the value we place on reading. The more your kids see you with a book, the more a message is delivered that reading is an essential part of the human experience. As they become old enough to read themselves, help them find material that is appropriate for their age and reading level, but don’t worry about the subject. Of course we would like them to pick the best literature out there, but that will come with time. For now, trust me, a former comic book addict: If they enjoy reading, they will expand their literary horizons in their own time. If they’re forced to read what doesn’t interest them, you run the risk of extinguishing the spark of excitement for reading that’s so important to their becoming life-long learners and fulfilling their potential.
When you and your child are looking for books to read, sometimes the classics are the best choice of all. There is a reason they are classics—they’ve already stood the test of time. They tend to have familiar themes and they deliver quality life lessons. One of my favorite examples is the story “The Tortoise and the Hare.” It’s believed that Aesop wrote this fable more than 2,500 years ago, and yet it’s hard to find any child today who doesn’t know the story of the hare’s unlikely victory or the timeless lessons of hard work, steadfastness, and the moral that “Slow and steady wins the race.”
So tonight, perhaps you and your child can walk over to the bookshelf, close your eyes, and choose at random what I hope will be, at least in the moment, your favorite book.
About a year ago, many of my friends, along with a certain segment of the Jewish world, were excited about the publication of a new children’s book, an event that is usually so routine it rarely elicits notice, let alone comment. This book, however, was different: The Purim Superhero features a brother and sister who live with their two dads. It is billed as the first Jewish kids’ book to feature same-sex parents or any type of LGBT characters, and was on Parents.com’s recently published list of great children’s books with same-sex parents. (The title refers to a Jewish holiday that, coincidentally, was celebrated earlier this month.)
I recently thought of the book and the enthusiasm it provoked when I read about a study showing just how few newly published children’s books portray characters from racial and ethnic minorities: Of 3,200 books published in 2013 and studied by researchers at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, they found only 93 about black characters; 57 about Latinos; 69 about Asian; and 34 about American Indians.
That amounts to… not a lot.
This is a shame on so many levels. Most obviously, for kids who themselves belong to any of these terribly underrepresented groups—but also for all of us. The problem with these stats is the flip side of the excitement my friends and I felt for The Purim Superhero. The stories that we tell ourselves—and certainly the stories we read to our children—matter. Deeply. They help us understand and make sense of our world, they help us define ourselves and our values, they help us appreciate how others feel and how to put words to our own feelings. It is not just a matter of seeing myself in these stories, it is a matter of seeing my world—and the world I want to live in.
The American family is changing, fundamentally, rapidly. Whatever the world of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents looked like, today’s world, and certainly tomorrow’s world, will look very different. I want to be able to help my children understand, value, and cherish other people and other families, regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship, or who they love. If the kids’ book world cannot capture in any adequate way the range of racial and ethnic diversity among American families, what hope is there for depictions of newer and less traditional family arrangements?
Books are a big way to help us accomplish that. Without them to aid us, the task is that much harder.
As our values and the realities of our world change over time, so should our books, which can help our kids feel comfortable with and accepting of ideas–and people and family arrangements–that are new, different, and perhaps at first unusual to them. In addition to its two-daddy household, The Purim Superhero features a woman rabbi as the spiritual leader of their synagogue. Depicting a woman in the historically male role of rabbi would have been remarkable a couple of generations ago, and virtually unthinkable before then. Today it is hardly mentioned, if at all, in coverage of and discussions about the book. My kids shrug at it, just as they shrug at the idea of a family with two daddies, and that’s in part thanks to the book they’re asking me to read again and again.
It’s important to note that The Purim Superhero wasn’t created in a vacuum and it wasn’t a happy accident of writer meets publisher. It was the product of a writing contest held by Keshet, an advocacy group for LGBT Jews (the name means “rainbow” in Hebrew)–which saw the contest a great way to find, publish, and publicize an engaging book with the character, themes, and message of so important to the organization.
Perhaps it’s time for others to follow that model. Strangely, the University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that the number of children’s books featuring characters from the groups it studied dropped over the past decade.
We’re going the wrong way. It’s time for our kids’ books to look like America.
My first favorite book was The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food. My mom read it to me so many times that I could eventually recite it from memory. I have no doubt that all of those hours spent reading with my parents when I was little became the foundation for my career as a magazine editor.
Now, part of my job at Parents is handling our coverage of children’s books. Every day, I get boxes and boxes of books in the mail (I often have to make two trips to the mailroom because there are too many to carry!) I love poring over all the stories and pictures that will shape the minds of young kids—and maybe even change some lives.
So naturally, I was intrigued by this Let Toys Be Toys campaign in the U.K. to stop labeling gender-specific books and toys. The petition—which has been gaining momentum as booksellers and writers lend support—calls for publishers to stop labeling books for a particular gender, either in the title or on the packaging. “Telling children which stories and activities are ‘for them’ based on their gender closes down whole worlds of interest,” the petition states. I couldn’t agree more. Children should be able to decide for themselves which stories and activities they find interesting.
Here in the United States, I occasionally see a book labeled for one gender, but it’s not as common as it appears to be in the UK. Still, it’s evident that even if publishers aren’t declaring books specifically for boys or for girls, they’re still marketing some of them that way. Books for girls are covered in pink flowers and cupcakes, while boys get trucks and cars. But what about the boys who like baking and the girls who like construction vehicles? We should let children decide what interests them as an individual, rather than pushing them towards one topic or another. Besides, we should want girls to learn some science and spatial skills, and we should want boys to develop some nurturing behavior. Let’s encourage our kids to be well-rounded.
While the Let Toys Be Toys campaign is not focused in the US, we could still borrow some of its tactics. We can reach out to publishers to let them know that we want books marketed for both genders. It’s so easy to reach out through an online petition or Twitter, after all. We can also spread awareness of the issue to others. But above all, it’s up to parents to encourage their children to select stories that interest them, regardless of any social stigmas or what companies are pushing towards them.
On a brighter note, I also see plenty of wonderful books here in the office. Each month, I’m bummed that I don’t have room in the magazine to cover all the creative and imaginative stories for kids of both genders and all ages. These are the tales we want to share with our kids. Looking for a place to start? Check out our Best Children’s Books of 2013 list.