A more eloquent answer to this question I have never heard, than in Deborah Ellis’s talk at the IBBY Congress in Athens last year. Thanks to Deb for permission to quote excerpts.
On November 20, 1959, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It states that every child on the planet has the right to live, to play, to be with their parents, and to be educated. Nearly sixty years later, millions of children have been killed in wars, millions more orphaned and injured, millions are hungry, millions are married off while they are still children, and play is a concept unknown to many.
As a writer for children, I look at the world and wonder, “What is the role of children’s literature in all this?” I think I’m beginning to know. We create the world we have through our decisions. Our decisions are shaped by stories – the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we choose to believe that others tell us about ourselves, about our limitations and what we should fear.
The best of children’s literature seeks to inspire young readers to create their own story of who they are and how they want their world to be.
Research has shown that children’s attitudes can be shaped and enlightened through exposure to books. They can grow empathy toward animals and toward the suffering of other people. They can learn to see people who seem ‘different’ as just the same, with the same capacity for love, joy and pain as the child herself.
The best of children’s literature can remind us who we are when we are at our best. It can remind us we need not be afraid of differences, and that we have the power to create beauty out of pain.
Good children’s literature can provide that alternative piece of information. It can provide a new way of looking at the world. It can be a welcoming, sturdy branch that says to the child, “You have the power to choose bravely.”
Good children’s literature is not the sole key to a sustained, livable future for all, but it is certainly one of the keys.