Illustration Photo by Moran Barak
Text size

"When I want to feel like an anemone, I wear a flowered dress," begins Zippi Sharoor's lovely poem, "Yalda shel kayitz" ("summer girl ). A few years ago an interesting experiment involving the poem was tried out on a class of first graders. With education students from Beit Berl College and their advisor observing the class, the teacher read the poem aloud and then asked the children questions about its content. When the student advisor later asked the teacher whether she thought the children had enjoyed the poem, she was hesitant: "Their answers were nice," the teacher said.

The teacher was then asked to read the poem again, without saying anything afterward. "After a few long moments of silence the children began talking about the poem themselves, without being asked," said Dr. Hanna Livnat, director of the college's Yemima Center for the Study and Teaching of Children's Literature. She was the supervisor in the experiment. "There was a kind of primal shock, but as they began talking about the poem their speech became freer and more flowing. They said pretty much the same things as before, but suddenly you saw genuine enthusiasm, and for the first time I realized that the experience of reading must not ruined with tasks and assignments," Livnat said.

There is no need to go on and on about the importance of reading in general and for young children in particular, and about its important role in emotional, cognitive and language development. The arguments in favor of reading enrichment programs are so familiar that one must be paying careful attention to recognize that Livnat is speaking about something else entirely. "We've lost the simple, natural experience of reading," she says. "Children are almost programmed to have assignments connected to the books they are assigned to read, so if preschool and elementary teachers merely read to them it's revolutionary."

In recent years, Livnat says, educators and authors have begun trying to bring back the pleasure of reading. Of course these experts are worried about the decline in language skills and reading comprehension among Israeli children. It seems there is no greater arrogance. How can the unmediated, elusive experience of reading a good book be restored?

No choices

The battle over reading in childhood would appear to be a lost cause, unequal to the instant, soothing gratification that comes from staring at a television screen. And yet, the Education Ministry continues to tilt at windmills, with a number of programs aimed at encouraging reading. The most popular of these is "The Book Parade" (in cooperation with the Israel Center for Libraries ), a kind of "American Idol" competition for books that is the culmination of a year of activities revolving around a few chosen titles. A spin-off for kindergartens, "The Bookshelf," will begin this year.

The salient feature of both these programs is the lists of recommended books selected by an Education Ministry committee, which begs the question of how such a bureaucratic process is supposed to result in an aesthetic, intellectual experience. Doesn't this constitute cultural censorship?

The list for each program is selected by a committee of literature education, children's literature and information science professionals. The "The Book Parade" panel, for example, selects 24 books each year for each age group (kindergarten, grades 1-3, 4-6, 7-10, 11-12 ). Every class votes for its 10 favorite books on the list. The list of recommended books changes each year.

While children's votes play a large role in "The Book Parade," and the selection process is relatively democratic (though only books on the list are eligible ), "The Bookshelf" lacks the element of choice. The selection committee picks nine books from the Parade list, including children's favorites from the past three years. Each month kindergarten teachers are to focus on one book and prepare activities around it such as acting out scenes.

Both programs are optional, but because the Education Ministry subsidizes the books there is an incentive for schools to join. Thus, for example, 500 kindergarten classrooms out of a total of 1,500 throughout Israel take part in Parade. The ministry and local governments pay for buying copies of the recommended books for the schools' libraries. Parents can buy the Bookshelf selections for just NIS 2 each.

Sima Haddad, director of the Education Ministry's preschool department, notes that every kindergarten has its own library and that teachers use other books as well. Still, especially in a kindergarten it's a safe bet that most of the teacher's time and attention will be directed toward the books on the list.

Where is Yehoshua Parua?

The Bookshelf list has not been finalized, but Haddad says the following books have been short-listed: Nira Harel's "Key to the Heart," Ami Rubinger's "No Such Lions," Datia Ben-Dor's "What Can You Do, Fly?," Nurit Zarchi's "Tiger in Golden Pajamas," Rinat Hofer's "Porcupine with a Suitcase," Yona Teffer's "Yona leaves Binyamina," Lea Goldberg's "Magic Hat," Miriam Yellin-Steklis's "I Gave a Flower to Nurit," Levin Kipnis's "Golden Nut" and the poems of Haim Nahman Bialik.

Why do authors such as Bialik, Goldberg and Zarchi have to be reevaluated, and why recommend only one book by an author who has passed the committee's taste test? Do less politically-correct classics such as "Yehoshua Parua," based on the 19th-century author Heinrich Hoffmann'a "Der Struwwelpeter" ("Slovenly Peter" or "Shock-Headed Peter" ) stand a chance of making the list? The problem is complex, says Livnat, who is on the Parade committee.

A children's book author who asked not to be identified because her books have been chosen for Parade, the committees demonstrate a lack of initiative and skill on the part of preschool and elementary school teachers. "They should develop their own taste," she said.

Livnat admits that at first she was uncomfortable with being in the position of selecting "appropriate" books. But, she says, since the book market is flooded and the Education Ministry has responsibilities and goals she eventually concluded that such a list can be composed, on the basis of quality. Furthermore, she adds, teachers of young children begged for such a list. "The same standards for quality adult books may be applied to books for children," Livnat says. "Many people think it's easy to write a children's book, and so there are many flat, didactic and problematic ones around."

A book's quality, she says, is measured first of all by its language. Rich and not flat, though it can be of a low register and include slang. The characters should be complex, not stereotypical or one-dimensional. They should develop in the course of the story, and their characters should not be obvious. "Each word should be in the right place," Livnat says. "There should be nothing to add or subtract. It should be built like a tower of blocks."

Livnat believes that the demand for activities organized around the books often comes from parents, "and then the teacher pins posters on the wall with the book titles." The least harmful of these activities are "creative, like dramatizing the book, on the condition that it invites dramatization." According to Livnat, "Teachers sometimes ask children to make up a name for the book. Picking a name is one of the hardest things a writer has to do. What does it say to children when they are asked to instantly come up with another title, or a different ending - that the author writes badly?"

According to writer and editor Yehiam Padan, "Literature for children and young adults is not meant to teach language enrichment or anything else. It is meant only to bring pleasure, and if it doesn't it's missed the mark." He adds that the committee often recommends boring books. "With all due respect, Bialik is no longer relevant to children. There is no doubt that he should be studied, but studying him is a punishment. Why recommend him for free reading?," Padan said. He calls Goldberg's "The Magic Hat" the fantasies of a child from the 1940s about the previous century. "There are things that are much more relevant to today's children. How can a list of 20 books with five works from the 19th century or from the middle of the 20th be balanced?."

Padan thinks the Parade list has too few new books. Even worse, he says, it is divorced from the world of children, from what they really like. For evidence he points to the fact that Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" was selected by children, not the committee.

Haddad says that the fact that the list includes books that were not chosen by the committee shows that children are being heard. Padan says there aren't enough fantasy books on the list, citing "old-fashioned reservations" about the genre.

Padan says that while it's important to know the classics, he trusts teachers and students in this matter. "It's better to read Jacqueline Wilson's 'Secrets,' about a girl whose father beat her, than 'David Copperfield,' because children can't identify with a boy who was abused by his father 130 years ago."

Renana Mosek, a preschool reading development specialists who conducts parents' workshops on the topic and also recommends children's books, the problem with the Parade lists is that they consist only of books that are too new or ones that are part of the canon. "Ayn Hillel somehow eluded canonization. Children today don't know him." She is skeptical about the power of educational programs in general to change habits or to bridge educational gaps that are created in the home.

In the absence of empirical studies to evaluate whether these programs facilitate reading and language development, fulfilling the expectations attached to them, it is hard to determine whether they are worth their significant cost. The Education Ministry is planning research into the association between the programs and the children's achievements. Until then, says Tzipi Karlitz, the ministry's coordinator of the Book Parade, "Book publishers and authors don't interest me, only the quality of a book. The children. I am also in favor of their reading everything, detective stories and romances, but in my position at the ministry I am not the one to make recommendations."