Why children’s books are important

Written by SF Said, award-winning children’s author and judge of the inaugural Amnesty CILIP Honour. Follow SF Said on Twitter or visit his site at www.sfsaid.com

I've worked in many fields: politics, academia, journalism. And while I think they're all valuable and important, when I think back on the things that have made the deepest impact on me, in my own life – it's not the political speeches that I've heard, the academic articles I've read, or the newspapers, magazines and websites.

It's the stories that I encountered when I was young. The books I read when I was a child shaped me more profoundly than anything.

The first book I can remember reading on my own, aged around 3, is The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A book that opens with the famous drawing of what might seem to be a hat, but is in fact a boa constrictor eating an elephant. A book that urges its readers to take nothing for granted; be open to anything; question everything. Even – perhaps especially – the things that adults tell you.

Question everything.

It's an idea that I encountered again, many years later, in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, which I read when studying politics. Now, On Liberty is one of the greatest, most powerful statements of political philosophy ever written. And yet I'd be willing to wager that The Little Prince, without ever setting out to be a work of political philosophy, has communicated that idea to many more people. It's done it in a way that even a three-year old could grasp – and once grasped, it never leaves you, however long you live.

Image: The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Huge ideas in little books

That is what great children's literature can do. It can express enormous ideas in the form of thrilling stories that anyone can enjoy, full of unforgettable characters and worlds.

This is, arguably, not only what children's literature can do, but what it is for. The great stories that we have handed down from generation to generation, since our ancestors sat around campfires and caves 70,000 years ago, and our descendants will still be handing down as they sit in space stations among the stars, in the future – these stories all embody ideas about what it means to be human and alive; about how we should live and treat each other; about what really matters.

You will find ideas of this sort in all children's books, however simple they may seem. And so, if there are things that you think are important – the right to question everything, for example; the values of truth, justice, freedom – I believe there's no better way to communicate them than in children's stories.

Wellspring of civilisation

So these books are not some trivial thing, that deserves no attention from adults – as it would sometimes seem if you looked at the books pages of our national newspapers, and our TV and radio stations, where they are routinely under-represented.

Children's literature is the biggest story of all! It is the wellspring of our civilisation; the place where you will find the culture's deepest hopes and fears reflected. It is where you will see the values of the next generation taking shape, as these books help young people to think about the world, and their experiences of it, and other people's experiences, and how it might all be different.

So that is why I chose, many years ago, to devote my life to writing children's books, and to celebrating them. That's why I'll talk to anyone who will listen about how wonderful they are; and why I love people and organisations who champion them, and stand up for them.

The Amnesty CILIP Honour

So I'm incredibly excited to see Amnesty and CILIP come together to create this new Honour. Amnesty has been standing up for the right to question everything, and indeed for all of our human rights, ever since it was founded. The Carnegie and Greenaway Medals have been championing children's literature even longer – sending out the message, every year, that these books exist, and that they matter.

From a writer's point of view, these awards are unique. They're given by librarians: the guardians of the flame of information. I write my own books in a public library, so I see the invaluable and irreplaceable work that libraries and librarians are doing, every day, for so many in the community, but especially for young people – giving them all equal access to the books that will change their lives, and shape their imaginations forever. How amazing is that?!

So thank you CILIP, and thank you Amnesty, for championing children's literature and taking it seriously. It is a huge, huge honour to be involved as a judge.

Find out more about the Amnesty CILIP Honour

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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