READING Kids books grow up, deal with tough issues



Children are more sophisticated and have more complicated lives than they did years ago.
By OLIVIA CLARKE
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
See Dick learn about healthful eating.
See Jane get self-esteem.
See Spot run from mean kids.
Mother Goose, Dick and Jane and those clever Hardy boys in children's books have been replaced by characters who have much more complicated lives.
Children must deal with a variety of topics ranging from death to multiculturalism to physical fitness. And book characters such as Harry Potter or Babar can be there to teach them how. Young readers can enter an illustrated world where life's answers are found in 10, 20 or 100 pages.
Adults looking for ways to explain to kids why Mommy and Daddy got divorced or why self-confidence is important veto the bookstore's self-help section and head directly to the children's book department.
Mixed in with the many whimsical stories are simple yarns that use colorful pictures and rhymes to describe many of life's challenges.
"Pretty much any subject parents ... need help talking to their children about can be found in a book," said Amber Mathewson, head of the children's department at Tucson-Pima Public Library in Tucson, Ariz.
Adoption, self-esteem
For example, Jamie Lee Curtis, actress and children's book author, has penned five books that disguise real-life issues behind pastel pictures and short sentences.
Her 2000 book, "Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born," talks about the story of a little girl's adoption. And her current New York Times best seller, "I'm Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem," describes ways kids can exert confidence.
Jasmin Ambriz and her twin sister, Jeraldin Ambriz, both 10-year-old fifth-graders, said they like books that make them laugh. Some of their favorites books are the Junie B. Jones series, Harry Potter books and the Bunnicula series.
Anitzia Vivallobos, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, said she likes stories that are made up.
"Sometimes when the teacher tells me to stop reading, I can't, because the story is too exciting," she said. "Reading is a very important thing because it shows you that you must learn more."
Where there are children's books, such as the kids' section at Borders Books, Music and Cafe, there are rainbow-colored walls and well-used carpets. Short little shelves and even shorter tables and chairs encourage children to enter another world.
They know what they like
Armed with a list written on "Hello Kitty" paper, Tucson resident Christine Bradshaw tries to find a book for her 7-year-old granddaughter at Borders. Her granddaughter likes any book written by author Kevin Henkes.
Henkes' books have silly titles such as "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse" but are described, in School Library Journal, as having "real-life personalities, foibles and situations."
"He really captures the attention of second-graders," said Bradshaw, a retired teacher.
Some young readers are looking for characters who are similar to themselves and their family, Mathewson said. Other times they need to read about different cultural, ethnic and geographical backgrounds, she said. She suggests that children read "Whoever You Are" by Mem Fox to learn more about multiculturalism.
"What I like about it is it just deals with all different cultures of people and teaches that everybody has things to bring to life," she said. "Especially in these times, when people are feeling suspicious of people from other countries, it reminds kids and adults that for the most part we are all the same."
More involved
Many of today's popular children's books are much longer than those in the past, sometimes by hundreds of pages, and many are biographies or based on real life, said Kathryn Pellegrini, general manager of a Borders.
The hardcover version of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," for example, is 734 pages. And a popular new collection, "The Royal Diaries" series, is based on historical characters such as Marie Antoinette, she said.
Today's young readers tend to gravitate toward the not-so-happy-ending books, such as "A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Lemony Snicket.
"I think authors are recognizing how intelligent and well-read children are," Pellegrini said. "They aren't talking down to children anymore."
When parents and educators ask for more books on a certain subject, publishers will respond by offering more titles that deal with those issues, said JoAnn Sabatino-Falkenstein, vice president of publishing and marketing for The Children's Book Council, based in New York. Anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 children's books -- from picture books to young-adult novels -- are published each year in the United States, according to the council.
"I think [these books] help introduce a world outside their individual experiences," Sabatino-Falkenstein said. "Learning about a kid growing up in the city is good for a kid in Idaho."
XOlivia Clarke writes for the Arizona Daily Star.

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