In these dark days, what do we tell our children?
When I teach my course in writing picture books, I have my students read a variety of published works. These are usually books I have loved, books I think work really well, books that moved me–to laugh or to cry or to see the world differently.
Sometimes a student will take exception to my choices. “I would never read that book to a child,” they will say. “It’s too dark.”
It is based on an impulse to protect our children’s innocence, that children shouldn’t have to face the fact that bad things happen to good people until they are old enough to handle it. And I understand that impulse. I really do. I’m a mother myself.
But this assumes our children aren’t already bombarded with bad things every day of their young lives–if not in their own homes then through the constant barrage of the media. It assumes they are growing up in privilege. It assumes that no one they love has ever gotten sick and died. It assumes that domestic abuse has never touched them, that they’ve never been molested by someone they trusted, that no one they love has come back from war with PTSD, that no one they love is addicted to opioids.
And then there’s the question of whether we are ever old enough to handle the horror of a massacre in a school. ‘Cause, if we are, there is something very, very wrong. Right?
So, yes, it’s very, very wrong that there is no horror horrible enough to move our government to act on the epidemic of mass shootings in our country. It’s very, very wrong that our “leaders” can watch the videos of these children and not stand up and demand change. It’s very, very wrong that our children have to do drills in their schools to learn how to avoid getting killed when a man with a gun shows up in their classroom and starts shooting. It’s very, very wrong that our teenagers have to be the ones to stand up and say “No more!” because the adults in their world have failed to protect them.
As writers, how can we speak to the children who are growing up in this world? How can we address the harsh reality but also give them hope as they face their futures? This is a questions we who are parents face every day. And they are questions we as writers for children need to grapple with.
When I see a book like Matt de la Pena’s Love, or Cynthia Rylant’s Life, or Nicola Davies The Promise, am filled with joy. Not because these books are joyful, necessarily, but because they are real. They arm our children with the knowledge that life can be hard, but they also gift them with the knowledge that there is love out there, too, that life is worth living, that there is a promise that things won’t always be this bad.
And even if a child is lucky enough not to have pain and sadness and cruelty in her life, the fact that others do is an important thing to learn. It’s where compassion comes from. And what better way to learn that than in the lap of a trusted adult who wants nothing more than to protect you from all of life’s harsh realities.