“Muggles, muggles … MUUUUUUGGGGLLES!” was the pleading chorus the 10-year-old daughter of my friend, Sadie, greeted me with as I arrived at their house unannounced. She was wearing a generic pointed wizard hat that she had made herself adorned with little silver stick on stars. One more star twinkled from each mischievously grinning cheek; Emily was up to something!
“Muggles” of course being the term used in the Harry Potter books for us mere mortals. Uncertain as to whether this was meant to be a compliment, I was, nonetheless, feeling decidedly less than mortal after two hours stuck in cross-town traffic and was happy to be lead by the hand unprotesting into the house after Emily.
Sadie called after us: “They have a surprise for you.” Presumably “they” were a few more miniature witches and wizards lurking in the back room.
Emily showed me into the playroom where her friends were excitedly putting the finishing touches to a grandly towering, and at once strangely familiar, cardboard diorama. It was actually taller in places than its makers and because of this the dense blue acrylic paint used for the sky didn’t quite reach the top; white cotton wool clouds had to content themselves with drifting low over elaborately painted forests and rolling yellow deserts.
“What’s all this?” I asked breathlessly. They were all almost bursting with excitement to tell me. “Maginaryworld of course!” came the shrieking reply. “See, over there is Egyptland, and there, next to it is Hogwarts Academy and next to that is Count Olaf’s mansion. Don’t you know? Muuuuugggles!”
This time the word was meant as a rebuke for my oversight; the cut-out cardboard world they had so accurately recreated was the very same one I describe in my novels about two identical twin sisters who retreat into a make believe world of the same name, and from that base they had added a bit of Lemony Snicket here and an inspired dash of Harry Potter there.
They proceeded to knowledgeably inform me of the styles of architecture they had copied to create the lavish structures and in which climate zones such arid deserts might be found.
“Very impressive,” I remarked; and I meant it. Not only because of the obvious work required, but because it strongly reinforced my belief that the right choice of books and stories for kids can engage them and encourage them willingly — nay, eagerly –to learn.
All children are basically as inquisitive as Emily and her playmates. It is just a matter of exciting their natural desire to learn and explore. To help do this, five things to ensure when choosing fiction books for kids (being the same ones I bear in mind when I am writing for them) are that they include:
1. Elements of action that appeal more to boys as well as the more thoughtful, internal and reflective ones of more interest to girls. Storylines like those in Harry Potter and in my own books, that follow the characters as they grow and learn offer useful teaching points, along with all the wizardry action, etc.
2. Practical and historical elements that inform; books that engage, but also teach. There is a link on my web site to NationalGeographic.com/kids, which recently did an article on the science behind Lemony Snicket’s books – that sort of tie-in is not only great fun but a useful teaching tool.
3. Elements that, like their non-fiction counterparts, can translate into differing areas of activity beyond a passive reading experience. The construction of models and dioramas, like that of Emily and her co-builders, is a great example of this.
4. Descriptions of characters’ appearance and dress that make the story come alive, and make it literally leap off the page! Try choosing books that foster the designing of bright costumes from different time periods or imagined worlds. This is pretty easy with fantasy stories — especially well-researched ones — as the costume designs can be found in history books or on the Internet. (Short of that do what Emily did: paint a paper cone blue and stick on some sparkly stars!)
5. But don’t stop there! Encourage kids to act out the stories in performances that reinforce the story. Allow them to create their own versions of a tale — writing themselves into it. Why not put on a play and get both girls and boys to share in all production aspects; from building the sets, to designing costumes and writing and learning lines?