Why Children’s Books Matter

This is me and a friend with K. A. Applegate, author of the Animorphs series. Animorphs, Harry Potter, the Julie of the Wolves books, and Harriet the Spy are what made me want to be a writer. So, when K. A. Applegate was scheduled to appear at my local bookstore, my friend and I knew we had to go. What struck me most about actually meeting one of my favorite authors from childhood in the flesh was how she was so encouraging of the kids who liked writing or wanted to be writers and so excited to see her older readers, saying Animorphs fans grew up to be the coolest people. When K. A. Applegate was asking a little girl if she was a writer and encouraging her to be one, I couldn’t help but think how much that would have meant to me as a kid.

K. A. Applegate and J. K. Rowling were my heroes. They filled my shelf and shaped my budding view of the world. Honestly, I still get confused when people say women can’t write sci-fi or military science fiction because K. A. Applegate was the first sci-fi writer I knew. Sure, my first memories are of either the children’s room at my church or my parents watching Star Trek (which explains more about me than you know) and I loved Star Wars, but the first sci-fi books that I really engaged with and enjoyed were the Animorphs books.

And let’s not beat around the bush. Animorphs IS sci-fi. And, increasingly as the series went on, it was military science fiction. The Animorphs books may live in the Children’s or YA sections of the bookstore, but they had aliens, firefights, child soldiers, loss, trauma, and more genocide than I realized reading them. The Visser Chronicles even addressed Operation Desert Storm, which is more than can be said about my school district’s history department. These books may have been the pulp fiction of kid lit, but they had some pretty dark, mature, and definitively science fiction themes.

Perhaps it wasn’t ancient (war) epics that led me to study combat trauma in college. Perhaps it was Animorphs (that infamous last book that I dare not speak of doubly so). Perhaps it was those themes echoing in so many of the fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction books I loved growing up. Perhaps it was my own military family. Perhaps it was all of them. But when I tried my own hand at writing military science fiction, it took me about a year before I realized a young woman writing military science fiction was in any way controversial or out of the ordinary, even though I was aware of the rampant “boys’ club” mentality in the industry. It only occurred to me tonight when I saw Applegate’s new books under her full name that, like J. K. Rowling, she may have used initials to make her gender less apparent and therefore make the books marketable to boys.

No matter how many science fiction “classics” by the “masters” I read, Animorphs will have always been the first sci-fi book series to sweep me off to alien worlds and let my imagination drift amidst the stars and all the possibilities beyond them. Animorphs fanfiction written by flashlight under the covers in elementary school was the wooden sword with which I trained and honed my skills (though I don’t know that the word fanfiction even existed at that point). Those were some of the first stories I wrote.

I won’t lie, they’re atrocious. They’re full of melodrama and soapy plot twists and Tobias/Rachel shipping and a convoluted time travel/dystopian/post-apocalyptic plot that was just terrible (but, given current YA trends, clearly ahead of its time). But writing terrible stories is how you learn to write good stories.

I have read hundreds and hundreds of books in my life. I have studied classics and epics and sagas and poetry. I have soaked up as much knowledge as I can and sprung for a double major because I simply could not say no to classes that interested me, regardless of the subject. Yet the foundation of all I have read and all I have learned and all the ideas I have ever considered are the stories that struck a chord with me as a kid and stuck with me long after I had moved them aside on the shelf to make room for Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Homer.

So, when a parent turned to me and my friend while we were waiting in line to have our books signed and asked if we recommended his son get the first Animorphs book, my answer was an unequivocal ‘yes’. In all honesty, I did caution him about the last book, but that last book would not have bothered me so much if I hadn’t loved the books or cared about the characters or felt invested in the series (quite literally, as I had all 60+ books and various Animorphs merchandise), in the same way that the Star Wars prequels would not have gotten people all hot and bothered and nerd-angsty if the original trilogy hadn’t meant so much to them. Things hurt or disappoint us because they matter to us. And these books mattered to me just as Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen and the Pevensie children and Meg Murry and Bilbo Baggins and Alice and the March sisters and the Ingalls family and Tintin and the Hardy Boys have mattered to millions of children the world over and across generations.

All of us, writers or not, are the sum of everything we have experienced and everything we have read. I would be a different person and a different writer had I not read Animorphs. I hope to pay that forward and influence the readers and writers of tomorrow. This is why children’s books matter. They shape all the writers of every genre to come and echo across all of literature (and, thus, all of humanity and its future).

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4 thoughts on “Why Children’s Books Matter

  1. Reblogged this on Bound and Gagged and commented:
    I wrote this on my personal blog, but, while I’m not aware of Animorphs being banned (though it would not surprise me), this seemed to fit with many of the things I have said on this blog, as children’s books and YA are so frequently banned, often because adults do not think they can handle adult themes.

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  2. […] “The Secret of Roan Inish, while a must-see just for being a charming tale, is one of those rare movies that is enjoyable and enriching on many levels to all ages. Beyond the fantastic yarns both in and out of story, Roan Inish gets across complicated and deeply political Irish (and world) history in a personal and accessible way that neither plays it safe nor dominates the plot. Yet even if you don’t care one whit about Ireland (though the gorgeous cinematography and haunting score may make that difficult), Roan Inish is a resonant and universal story about family, finding your place in a changing world, and having the work ethic and gumption to claim that place. Fiona doesn’t just dream, she does. Even with magic afoot, it is Fiona who fixes her own problems and makes things happen. No matter how many people dismiss her story as the fancies of a young girl, Fiona never doubts herself and never let’s anyone else doubt her word either, a lesson everyone, and little girls in particular, need to hear.” Shannon Barnsley (also check out Barnsley’s article, Why Children’s Books Matter) […]

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  3. I had a similar experience when I met KA at a signing a few years ago! She was really loving and friendly and excited to meet me, like I was the author and she was the fan! I actually liked the series ending, though. One of the first things she said to me was sorry about the ending, and I got to tell her I thought it was a brave choice that fit the rest of the series.

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    • Yeah, she said the same to me after asking who my favorite character was (Rachel). I like dark or complex endings, so it wasn’t the lack of happy ending I had issue with, I just thought it was poorly executed.

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