Kim Zarins has an unusual perspective on books written for children. The assistant professor of English at California State University, Sacramento, teaches a children's literature class and has herself published two books companion pieces for young children.
In "Playful Bunny," a baby rabbit wants to play with other animals but doesn't have the necessary means to do so. The bunny can't climb a tree to join the birds, can't swim with the fish and so on. What the bunny can do is interact with a little boy (Cartwheel, $5.99, 32 pages; illustrated by Bernadette Pons).
The young pooch on the family farm in "The Helpful Puppy" has a similar dilemma. He can't crow like a rooster or chase mice like a cat, but he can keep a little boy company. At night, the boy and the puppy are going to sleep when the mom enters the bedroom and says, "Cows give milk and oxen pull, hens lay eggs and sheep give wool. But only our puppy gives love." (Holiday House, $16.95, 32 pages; illustrated by Caldecott Medal-winner Emily Arnold McCully).
You teach a class called "Children's Literary Classics." Who takes the course?
Most of the students are planning to get into K-6 teaching, so (the class) helps give them the background that will help them when they enter the classroom.
What's the reading list like?
We cover a wide range of texts for early readers (including) E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web," Cynthia Lord's "Rules" and Louis Sachar's "Holes."
We also do picture books like Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree" and classics like Arnold Lobel's "Frog and Toad" stories.
Just good stuff. It's great fun, actually.
What message are you delivering in "Bunny" and "Puppy"?
It's one of acceptance and validation. Both books have little preschool-type protagonists who are trying to find their places, (figure out) where they belong and what they can contribute.
I wanted to get the message across that it's not your skill set or your honors and accolades that make you matter, it's giving emotionally to others and the relationships you're a part of.
In "Bunny," a child validates the bunny. In "Puppy," I add one more layer of validation by having the mother come in at the end and say the words that the little boy may not have the vocabulary to say.
All these other animals contribute and the puppy feels bad about not being able to do that, but his gift is the most precious (of all the animals') and the one that really matters in the long run.
I assume one of your goals is to foster the bond between parent and child via reading out loud.
Absolutely. The books are designed for pre-schoolers up to kindergartners. (At that age) this is still an experience where the parent is going to have a child in her lap and she's going to be reading.
Or it's going to be in a school setting or what have you. There is always going to be a personal connection between the adult and the child.
So the child is getting the message from the book and from the oral delivery.
As a teacher, mother and author, are you concerned about young children becoming readers as they get older and become immersed in social media?
Reading is competing against so many other things, like video games. As companies (work to) attract younger and younger children to access their applications, I do think there is a concern. But I do know that publishers are working to bring more intelligent and productive material online for children.
You attended the American Library Association convention in June. As a teacher and children's book author, what was your take-away?
It was exciting to be a part of it, to contribute in a small way to the movement of bringing new messages to children.
Rather than visiting as just someone who is interested in children's books, I actually (got to see) my books on the display tables. I brought back a stack of little treasures, like the advance reading copy of Dav Pilkey's new "Captain Underpants."