Story power! The impact of children's literature

man in black sweater speaks with hands
Melissa Beattie-Moss

Dan Hade

"We think in stories," exclaimed Dan Hade, Penn State professor of language and literacy. "They are incredibly powerful in the lives of all humans—especially children."

Last Wednesday, Hade presented "Story power! The impact of children's literature" as the third installment of Research Unplugged's spring lineup. He opened the talk with an anecdote from his days as a kindergarten teacher. "I told the class the story of "The Three Little Pigs," said Hade. "Most children know a gentler version of the story, but in the version I told the last little pig boils and eats the wolf in vengeance."

Hade described how one wide-eyed little girl sitting at his feet looked up and said, "You know, I've never had wolf, but I hear it's pretty good." The audience laughed, as Hade went on to say that there was "no doubt that the story had gotten into her mind and ... she was totally convinced that she knew what boiled wolf smelled like and tasted like." That, said Hade, is but one example of the very real power of stories to capture young imaginations.

The former elementary school librarian discussed how children's literature has changed—perhaps not always for the better—in the past thirty years, and described four emerging trends in the genre: graphic novels, branding, globalization, and consolidation. According to Hade, "Children's literature is the only class of literature not produced by those who read it." This fact gives authors and publishers an extra measure of power and responsibility over the content they produce, he noted.

A particular problem, Hade said, is that nearly 80 percent of children's books are published by only eight companies. Today's trend is for publishing companies to be purchased by global media giants such as Viacom and Disney, he explained. These corporations play an enormous role in deciding which children's books will meet commercial success and which ones will never have a chance and end up being sold off cheaply as remainders. Noted Hade, this consolidation of power can be harmful to the development of children, as fewer voices are heard.

The rise of large bookstore chains such as Barnes and Noble has also pushed buying power out of the hands of small bookstores devoted to children's literature. At these niche stores, Hade said, children's book experts stocked the shelves and offered parents a carefully chosen selection. By contrast, in today's large chains, "there is typically no one with literary expertise in the store."

Large publishing companies selling to large corporate bookstores are looking for "books that are guaranteed to sell themselves," Hade explained. "Brand-name books and characters do just that." Clifford the Big Red Dog, Harry Potter, and The Magic School Bus, are universally familiar. "I think of these as books," Hade said. "But they have evolved into their own brands. They can now be toys, t-shirts, even toothbrushes."

The commercialization of children's literature "changes the way we react to the story," he continued. "Children's books exist, in part, for someone to make a profit. They're commodities."

It is profit that has pushed children's literature in new directions—one of the more controversial being the sub-genre of graphic novels."Companies have begun to look at what kids actually spend their time reading," Hade pointed out. Because of this, many book companies have increased sales of graphic novels and have re-released chapter books from previous generations like the Goosebumps and Babysitter's Club series into comic book format.

Hade's discussion of graphic novels brought up questions about how the pervasiveness of video and the Internet may impact young readers. These technologies can affect children's ability to process information, as a written or oral story is experienced differently from a television show or a movie, he said. "The medium matters. It changes the way we relate to the story."

"The Web accelerates everything," Hade noted. "Kids want their information faster and aren't as likely to sit down and read a book when they can get a story from a fifteen-second commercial."

Though Hade admitted that skills are required to read comic books, play video games, and watch videos, these skills are "not what we typically measure in school," he said.

Easy access to technology and a heavy dependence on graphics, he added, are creating "children who find it more difficult to visualize." Warned Hade, kids today are losing imagination—the "ability to visualize what isn't"—because of their dependency on technology.

Whatever the medium, he urged at last, we need to retain the centrality of imaginative story-telling in our culture. "Stories are our main way of making sense of ourselves and the world. That's why they are so important."

Dan Hade, Ph.D., is associate professor of language and literacy education in the College of Education. He can be reached at ddh2@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 09, 2007