Children’s literature creates foundational pathways for a child’s language development and acquisition, as well as encourages an actively engaged imagination. Remember the monster under the bed? Did you leave the light on just in case? Were unicorns or fairylands just around the corner? American author Ursula K. Le Guin said, “Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books.” High-quality children’s literature is essential for parents and teachers to foster an appreciation and love of reading in young readers, which, hopefully, they will carry into adulthood.

The Children’s Literature Association emphasizes how important children’s literature is for developing young readers at an early age. Narratives that rely more heavily on pictures and images than text encourage early-aged interaction with storytelling. The pictorial nature of the narratives, in these early readers, like board books, is an essential part of developing a child’s sense of plot, theme, character, setting, and conception of time, to name a few important literary aspects.

The study of children’s literature is the examination of literature appropriate for children from birth to adolescence. It includes fiction and nonfiction, for those age levels, as well as poetry and prose. The variety of literature available for children is diverse and wide-ranging in topic and complexity.

Professor of children’s literature Dr. Chen references the Essentials of Children’s Literature, stating, The best children’s books offer readers enjoyment as well as memorable characters and situations and valuable insights into the human condition. All good literature should do just that -- however, children, by nature of their particular age and corresponding developmental stages, require literature that is tailored to their specific needs.

Selecting children’s literature as your field of study can be a rewarding and fulfilling career choice. Here’s a closer look at the benefits and opportunities that can come from studying children’s literature.

Children’s literature is important for child development

Literature written for children must take into consideration the six stages of language development. Children begin making two-word sentences by 18 months, usually a sentence is a noun and a verb. Before this age children are pre-linguistic then develop a one-word sentence phase. More complex grammatical structures -- conjunctions, embedding (questions), permutation, use of prepositions of place -- do not occur, generally, until after 18 months old.

Understanding language developmental stages allows parents and teachers to pick appropriate texts to read with children at the exact right time to coincide with their developmental stage. For example, a reliable child’s sleep cycle is essential to growth and development. Swedish author and psychologist Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin knows this and wrote a popular book, The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep. The author employs “psychological techniques” to help children fall asleep as a result of reading or hearing this book be read aloud.

Children’s literature tackles important issues

In their early years, children are exposed to moral and ethical conundrums at crucial stages in the development of their own worldview. Children’s literature can allow teachers and parents to tackle important issues. Kat Patrick writes in The Guardian“Kids’ books offer ways to make sense of a world that is suddenly spinning so quickly we’re permanently dizzy; it’s one of the few formats that helps you do everything at once in the way the internet landscape demands; escape, understand and take action.”

Topics such as bullying, disabilities, and other religious traditions can be brought up using specific texts designed to engage children at their own developmental level. Simply put, children’s books encourage the motto: Question Everything.

Children’s literature is big business

If you were wondering about the solvency of investing in studying children’s literature, rest assured it is a growing and thriving market. China alone has a very vibrant and important children's book publishing industry, according to Publishers Weekly. It explains, “The entire Chinese children’s book market is expanding in terms of both sales and output diversity. [It] now accounts for 25.19% of the country’s total retail book market.”

Children’s literature booms in other countries, too -- around 10,000 children’s books are published in the UK annually. The Independent explains that some of the most enduring and best-selling books -- from Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter -- have been written for children, with one eye on adults too. Author of the internationally best-selling Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, says, “I didn’t write with a target audience in mind. What excited me was how much I would enjoy writing about Harry. I never thought about writing for children – children’s books chose me. I think if it is a good book anyone will read it.”

Children’s literature applies to other fields of study

Linguistics, phonetics, psychology, art and drawing, and creative writing are all fields of study which overlap and intersect with children’s literature (and there are more). Even English language learners benefit from incorporating children’s literature into their studies. The British Council's Young Learners Centre in Paris use children's literature in their teaching of English. The organization explains, “Now more and more English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers of young learners are using carefully selected stories from the world of children's literature because they have become more familiar with an acquisition-based methodology and because stories comply to the major objectives in most countries for foreign language teaching to young learners: linguistic, psychological, cognitive, social and cultural.”

There is no doubt over the value of high-quality children’s literature and its importance to teaching across curricula. Another example is how literature can bridge storytelling with science and the natural environment. Dr. Liam Heneghan of DePaul University wrote a very well received book on the subject, Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature. He describes how incorporating pastoral settings in picture books is an important way to elicit and instill curiosity and wonder for the natural world at an early age.

Children’s literature encourages empathy, fights racism, and promotes understanding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)

D. Jillian Roberts, an internationally renowned child and adolescent psychologist based in British Columbia, Canada, writes, “Developing empathy allows children to put themselves in another’s place and to better understand their experience. In today’s busy world, it’s important that children learn how to be deeply present to others’ thoughts and feelings. Empathy is key to social and emotional development [...].”

Reading is one of the best ways to step into someone else’s shoes, or to access another’s point of view. It allows children and young adults to imagine other worlds and other ways of thinking that might be completely foreign or vastly divergent from their everyday lives. Children’s literature can allow for discussions regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

An excellent example of a picture book that takes on these topics is The Other Side by Jaqueline Woodson. A Publishers Weekly review of the book explains, “evocative watercolors lay bare the personalities and emotions of her two young heroines, one African-American and one white. As the girls, both instructed by their mothers not to climb over the fence, watch each other from a distance, their body language and facial expressions provide clues to their ambivalence about their mothers' directives. […] Pictures and words make strong partners here, convincingly communicating a timeless lesson.” Race can be a difficult subject to tackle -- children’s literature, and high-quality picture books, can allow for early discussions and classroom integration of these topics.

Those interested in pursuing children’s literature as a course of study should expect to delve deeply into an enjoyable, lifelong learning and enriching field, encouraging children’s development through the unique powerful combination of storytelling and the imagination.