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International Children’s Book Day: The codex kids - how children’s stories are keeping books alive

Posted on 2 April 2019

Professor Helen Smith, from the University of York's Department of English and Related Literature, comments on how children's books continue to inspire adults and young people to keep reading.


International Children’s Book Day is celebrated in or around Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday on the 2 April.

Professor Smith said: ""Books about books”, commented novelist and essayist Angela Carter, “are fun but frivolous.” But that can’t be said for children’s books.

“Definitely fun, but far from frivolous, many children’s books are keenly interested in what books are like, and what they can do.

“Lots of children’s books play in sophisticated ways with the shape and function of the codex: the form of book that succeeded the scroll, and that we usually use today.

Big, Bad Book

“Take Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book, by the beloved author-illustrator pair Julie Donaldson and Axel Scheffer. Charlie curls up in a chair to read his favourite book, which turns out to be all about the favourite books read by its characters, the very last of which features our reading hero, Charlie Cook!

“In Lauren Child’s Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Book, naughty Herb falls asleep, and finds himself trapped in the book of fairy tales he has previously defaced, while in Oliver Jeffers’ The Incredible Book-Eating Boy, Henry is so hungry for knowledge he starts to eat books instead of reading them – and makes himself very poorly indeed.

“Another lovely book from Julia Donaldson, The Detective Dog, celebrates the astute nose of Detective Dog Nell. Nell is a reading assistance dog, who joins her owner at school each Monday, and soaks in the scents:               

               Sniff, sniff, sniff! Mixed in the air

                Were plasticine, custard and newly-washed hair,

                The crusts in the bins and the coats on the hooks,            

                But the best smell of all was the smell of the books. 

“Nell’s keen sense of smell is crucial to recovering the school’s stolen books – and to pointing Ted, the repentant book-thief, to the treasures of his local library. And at the end of the story, Nell finds that a new book has been added to the school’s store – the story of daring detective dog Nell! 

“Even books that don’t take books as their subject matter make the most of the resources offered by the physical book. Children’s books are beautifully illustrated – just take a look at Jo Empson’s Little Home Bird or Jackie Morris and James Mayhew’s Mrs Noah’s Pockets

Imaginative interaction

“Pictures and texts often interact in imaginative ways. Readers need to look carefully at the pictures in Lily Murray and Richard Merritt’s delightful The Dinosaur Department Store, so that they can see what headstrong Eliza Jane (‘some called her wilful, some called her wild!’) is up to, and predict the raucous ending. 

“And of course, lots of children’s books play with the possibilities specific to the codex form: the fact that pages turn one after the other, opening up new vistas each time. Who doesn’t love the little holes that track our story through Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, for instance? Robert Starling’s Fergal is Fuming even features a smoking hole through its front cover, with a surprised little dragon peeking through!

“It’s no surprise, then, that children’s book sales are booming. Children’s books rely so heavily on images, on the possibilities of text that swoops across pages and curls into shapes, and on the anticipation that builds with the turn of every page, that it’s hard to imagine them being replaced by e-books.

“Let’s hope, on this International Children’s Book Day, that these beautiful books keep on inspiring the next generation of readers.”

For more information on International Children's Book Day click here.

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