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Build's Penny Joelson reflects on the power of children's literature

Story added 31st Mar 2017

Build writing tutor Penny Joelson

Build writing tutor Penny Joelson on the enduring appeal of writing for children.

The power of children's literature

by Penny Joelson

I believe that books can be the most powerful influence on children outside of their own experience. I love the idea that children’s literature provides windows and mirrors for children – both opening their eyes to other worlds and mirroring their own lives so that they recognise themselves and feel less alone. With TV and films, the child is an outside observer, but in books children can take on characters, become them, and see the world directly through their eyes. 

As a child, I was an avid reader and I loved the immersive experience of reading, the way I could forget everything else and involve myself in the imaginary world of the book. I could experience adventures that I’d never dare be part of in reality, even if I’d had the chance, in books such as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and Lila Waltch’s Mystery of the Inca Caves. I loved the world of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and the way such disagreeable children bonded and changed as the truth about the garden emerged. I was a very ‘good’ child but loved reading about naughty children –  Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books and My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards. 

I know how powerful books can be. As a ten year old, I was once reading a book when the events in it began to happen to me, in such a creepy way that I actually threw the book across the room. Other books reassured me, showing me I was not alone in my anxiety and confusion about life. Books can be a comfort but can also develop empathy skills, as shown by in their research. It makes sense that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can help you see things from another’s perspective. 

In writing my latest book, I Have No Secrets, I have tried to enter the head of a character whose disabilities make her very different from me – Jemma has severe cerebral palsy and is unable to move or communicate. The experience of trying to see things from Jemma’s viewpoint has been eye-opening and I’ve had a positive reaction from those with cerebral palsy who’ve read it. Children’s books need to reflect the diversity of our society. I am keen to encourage diverse writers and hope I am helping a new generation of writers from all different backgrounds in the classes I teach at Build. I believe too that all writers need to be able to write from different perspectives – it is a part of the creative process that for me is most enjoyable as a writer. 

Penny Joelson's latest YA thriller, , is now on release. Read the first reviews on and follow Penny on Twitter at . She currently teaches at Build under her maiden name, Penny Kendal.

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