“Remember, Your Audience Is Only Five Years Old” and Other Fallacies About Children Literature

GeekMom Ariane rants about anthropomorphised animals and the need for more picture book biographies
Children’s library. Image by Flickr user calliope, CC BY 2.0.

When it comes to the picture books I read to my children, silly books are always fun but my heart belongs to biographies. I can only stand so many stories about the value of friendship, and lord help me if I read another story with a pun involving a moose and a goose. They sound alike, yes, we know. Couldn’t we, instead, load up their early bookshelves with picture books that also introduce more complicated concepts in a fun way?

One of my guilty pleasures is searching for picture books that discuss topics that seem like a wild overreach for a young audience—or, at least, topics I’m told are wild overreach. A biography about Paul Erdos and his love of prime numbers and his prolific math career. A biography about Clara Lemlich and activism for social justice in the early 1900s.

Unfortunately, the options that satisfy this guilty pleasure of mine feel limited, a drop of water in a sea of anthropomorphized animals. So what’s a passionate overachiever to do? Write her own books, of course. Then, I figured I may as well try to find an agent and publisher to get my stories of Sophie Germain or Grace Hopper out into the world for other geeks to enjoy.

However, the feedback I’ve gotten has often been disheartening. “This isn’t picture book level.” “4-year-olds don’t know what {insert book topic here} is.” “I can’t even pronounce these words.” “Remember, your audience is only five.”

No. No, no no.  My audience is not only five, it’s already five.

This generation will be connected to each other beyond our wildest imagination, so let’s expose them early to our marred history with diversity and tolerance. This generation will have to change, together, to survive a planet that’s been unsustainably used, so let’s expose them early to the history of our errors past. This generation will have to be specialized to an ever-increasing degree to solve the puzzles we couldn’t figure out, so let’s expose them early to vocabulary and knowledge that seems beyond their years.

This isn’t about pushing STEM down your kids’ throat, or embracing your inner tiger mom. This is about giving them hope. For all the problems they will face, history has given them unsung heroes—real people—to inspire the strength they will need.

OK, fine, so maybe the biographies I’ve written aren’t God’s gift to human kind. Take someone else’s, I don’t care. But collectively, let’s print more incredible picture book biographies and give our children the gift of insight and perspective. Not just about the most popular white males in history and the handful of women who have luckily made it through—I’m looking at you, Amelia Earhart and Marie Curie—but about the under-appreciated scientists, the silenced women and minorities… You know, the people whose names most adults have never even heard of. Let’s tell their stories. Let’s give them a voice to reach the next generation more successfully then they have our own.

It’s a big world out there, there is no such thing as “too early.”

Ariane is a programmer married to another programmer. Together they have two little girls who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage. Ariane can also be found illustrating for Intelligently Adorable.