As an educator, I have had many enjoyable conversations about children’s books with people who possess a wide range of tastes. I have found that when it comes to books in the home, opinions can be divided. It is quite a common school of thought that children’s literature should be light, fluffy, and full of happy endings. Parents especially feel that the time they spend with their children should be fun, not spent in unpacking difficult topics, particularly right before bedtime. I personally love the light and fluffy and get a real kick out of funny books with rhyming words, but I think there’s more to childhood reading than just the entertaining titles.
While heart-warming stories should have pride of place in every child’s reading routine, it is also important to remember that conversations about difficult topics can develop skills for dealing with tough situations. It can also help a child to live and navigate their truth, knowing that they are not alone in what they are going through. For a child who may not experience a lot of difficulty in the early part of their lives, stories about the tough stuff can sharpen a their empathy and sense of perspective, which helps in forming relationships with others. In my view, there is no better way to help a child become well-rounded than to expose them to life through a different lens – but these conversations are often difficult to start and even more difficult to explain in kid-language.
For any trial a child may come across, there is likely to be a book that covers it. I have seen exceptionally well-written books about divorce, death, having a parent in jail, experiencing childhood illness, homelessness, being a refugee, knowing someone with a mental illness, and just about everything in between. Some books even look back through history at some of humanity’s darker times, with stories about wars, September 11, and even the Holocaust. The topics may be deemed dark, but these narratives represent the lived experiences of real people and for some children, it may be a part of their life. If we hide their truth away by discouraging engagement or conversation about it, we prevent that child from coming to terms with what they are going through and making peace with it. Put simply, we shouldn’t be uncomfortable about the things that make up our lives. Modelling a closed mindset to children about the bumps in the road can send the message that some things are too difficult to overcome, let alone talk about.
I will never forget one of the first books I read independently about a tough topic. It was called Pink Balloons by Beverly McGregor and it told the story of a girl my own age (9, at that time) who had succumbed to the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. The story was weaved with tragedy and ultimately had a sad ending, but I felt a connection to the life of this little girl who had hopes and dreams so similar to my own. All she had wanted was to ride a motorbike, spend time with her siblings, and to live to see enough birthdays so that she could collect 100 pink balloon cake ornaments. Fortunately, I grew up with parents who never censored my reading material, and I feel that these experiences helped me to see life from a different vantage point. It isn’t always easy to relate to that which we have not been through ourselves. Books can bridge that gap.
There should always be time for humour, whimsy, fairy tales, and rhymes, but there should also be opportunity for children to explore the more complex narratives of life with guidance. Some stories may provoke feelings of sadness in children, but the emotional highs and lows are a natural part of the human experience. The more we talk about tricky things, the more we can be empowered in overcoming them. Books send a powerful message to children that they are not alone; that other people (even little people) have slayed the particular monster that looms in the shadows of their lives, waiting to bother them. What an empowering notion.
Image sourced from www.quotefancy.com – check it out for lots of cool literary quotes with pictures.