Leonard Marcus (pictured above), the speaker for today’s keynote address on Children’s Books for Education and Entertainment, discussed at length on striking the “right” balance between entertainment and educational content for children’s books. Authors of children’s books, he says, have always faced the dilemma of having their book hover between the “two poles” of education and entertainment. On the one hand, if a book is boring, children will likely not lap it up. On the other, if it careens towards the other end of the spectrum and is deemed TOO entertaining, parents would not buy it for their children.

How parents interpret the book is also important as the same book can be viewed in completely opposite perspectives. Take the Harry Potter series for example. Some consider it a book that deals with the topics of death and loss in a manner acceptable for children, while others consider it satanic and have banned their children from reading it. Educational and entertaining do not have to be considered on two opposite poles, but can go hand in hand, depending on how the book is viewed and utilised.

Leonard Marcus’ advice to authors is: “Children won’t get interested in you. Get interested in children.” Authors such as Maurice Sendak (Where The Wild Things Are), Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) and Dr. Seuss (The Cat in the Hat series) were able to capture a child’s attention by appealing to their innate sense of curiosity and mischief. Whereas earlier forms of children’s books wielded fear as a tool to influence children’s behaviour, Maurice Sendak embraced fear as a subject and helped children to understand it. Hence his books are both entertaining and educational, and more likely to end up on the bookshelves of a family home.

Taking the analogy of leading a horse to water, how does one get a child interested in reading? If the child is the horse (though of course children are cuter and, in some cases, less tame) and reading is the act of drinking water, what can educators and parents alike do to encourage the lifelong habit of reading?

If the horse refuses to drink, don’t stand by and gape at it. Splash its mouth with water and hope some gets in! Christopher Cheng, a prolific author of children’s books, was at the Arts House today to tell us how he makes book trailers to promote his books. Book trailers are in the same vein as movie trailers, using sound and images to capture the attention of potential readers. He relates the story of how his wife, a teacher-librarian, had a book trailer on loop in the library. Within weeks, books in that series were flying off the shelves!

In other cases, perhaps the horse has discerning tastes and prefers other types of water (there is a dizzying variety of water such as hard, boiled, raw, rain, filtered.. Google it). Find other sources of water. If children bypass the books in favour of television, why not show them a film adaptation of a book such as Moby Dick? Perhaps a pageful of words is daunting to them, in which case comic books are a great way to incorporate reading into a child’s life.

The good news is that more and more children’s books are being converted into digital format. A representative from Walker Publishing House was also at the Arts House today to give a talk on eBooks and apps from a publisher’s perspective. Picture book apps can be downloaded from the Apple App Store for less than 50 cents. These interactive media give authors the chance to create a more immersive experience for the child, allowing them to have a speedier road toward the realization that “Reading is fun!”

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Or CAN you?

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