Encouraging Lifelong Reading with Great Children’s Books

Today is International Children’s Book Day, which falls every year on or near April 2, the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen. This year the event is sponsored by the United States Board on Books for Young People, and the theme is spreading Book Joy Around the World. National Geographic writer Barbara Kerley has certainly spread the joy of reading around the world – she’s the award-winning author of several picture books, including The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, a Caldecott Honor and an ALA Notable Book, and Walt Whitman: Words for America, a Sibert Honor Book.

NEA Today spoke with Kerley about writing for young people and how to keep them interested in books and reading.

How did you get started as a children’s book author?

I started writing seriously—and by that I mean, making time in my daily life to write—when I was in my early 20s. I wrote short stories for adults and published a few pieces in small literary magazines. But I always felt a bit of a disconnect: so many of the other stories I read were sort of jaded. A lot of them seemed to be about an English professor in an unhappy marriage.

I wanted to write about things that got me excited about the world—interesting people, amazing things found in nature—things that to me felt open and full of possibility. Once I had a child of my own and started reading to her, I realized that writing children’s books is a much better fit for me.

What is important for children’s book authors to keep in mind about their audience?

Kids are naturally curious and think inductively. They pay attention to the small, concrete things in their immediate experience—whether they are outside exploring at the park or inside looking through a book—and from these experiences start to understand larger truths about the world. So I try to marry the theme of my book (the larger truth) to specific details or a specific story.

What makes a book resonate with children?

Kids like to be surprised, intrigued, and entertained, so I’m always looking for things to write about that surprise, intrigue or entertain me. I’m sort of a nine-year-old at heart, so I figure if it works for me, it will probably work for my audience. One of the reasons I love writing for National Geographic is that the world is so interesting. When I work on a book like The World Is Waiting For You, I get to explore what it’s like to dig up fossils or dive with dolphins. The nine-year-old in me is thrilled, and my kid readers are engaged. When I work on a book like One World, One Day, I get to learn about other cultures and see how kids in other countries spend their day at school. There are plenty of surprises—like learning that some kids in China have to zipline over a river to get to school—and plenty of things that are entertaining, like seeing dozens of kids (some eating popsicles) piled into a horse cart in India, riding home from school.

What’s a secret you can share with educators on getting more kids interested in nonfiction books?

I actually think that most kids are naturally interested in quality nonfiction because they are so curious about the world. It’s important that the books are accurate, of course; engaging writing and appealing illustrations really help, too.

One of the best things educators can do is share nonfiction with their students, often and enthusiastically. Read nonfiction books during class storytime. Make sure a variety of nonfiction books are prominently displayed in classrooms and libraries. Booktalk good nonfiction titles—even if it’s just to read a single page about how an engine works or a shark eats or a spelunker explores a cave—and I guarantee a kid will be picking up that book to read the rest. Read a chapter out loud from a longer nonfiction book and stop right at a cliffhanger ending, and you can hook the whole class.

With so many digital devices competing for kids’ attention, how can educators and parents get their kids to read more?

If kids have access to a true variety of quality books and see the adults in their lives reading books, they are likely to want to read books, too. A lot of these gadgets are competing with reading for pleasure (and winning the competition) because I’m not sure we as adults always remember that reading for pleasure is supposed to be FUN. I think kids are more likely to become life-long readers when they get to choose what they read for pleasure—be it a book about cars, a graphic novel, or a fashion magazine. If a kid in high school likes reading picture books for fun, why shouldn’t that be ok? If a kid wants to read the same book, over and over, that’s ok, too—they’ll gain new insights with each reading.

Our schools are struggling through an era of severe cutbacks, where librarian staff and book collections are often on the chopping block. What is the consequence for our students?

Libraries are one of the great equalizers in our society. No matter what your background or economic status, you can go to the library. Many parents today can’t afford to buy books for their kids, but they can still enrich their kids’ lives if they have a library card. Libraries are at the center of strong schools and strong communities.

Libraries and librarians also play a crucial role in making information accessible. Sure, you can find information randomly searching the internet, but how accurate is it? How appropriate is it for young people? But if you walk into any library in the country, a librarian will be there who can help you find information on anything. Students need that. We all need that.

What changes in literacy trends and reading have you witnessed over the years, and what has remained the same? What do you predict for the future?

Since I was a kid back in the 60s and 70s, there has been an explosion in the variety of children’s books available. There is something now for every kind of reader. Luckily, what has remained the same is the importance of a good story—and I think that will always be with us.

What is the best compliment on your writing that you have received from a teacher? What about a student?

The thing that makes me happiest is when I make a nonfiction convert—when a teacher or a student tells me that they didn’t think they’d like a nonfiction book, or a book on a particular topic—but when they read mine, it changed their mind. It affirms that all the effort the publishing team and I put into a book was worth it.

This story will mark International Children’s Book Day – what can books do to help bring the children of the world closer together?

Books can break down barriers, bridge gaps, and help us understand each other. The better we understand each other, the more empathy we develop—we truly can place ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. And that’s a very good thing.

Finally, do you have a favorite children’s book?

When I was a kid, I adored Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I read it over and over—at least a dozen times. I read it so often that the binding fell apart, and I had to mend my copy with duct tape. I still have that copy, today.