It turns out that I am a stop and go blogger. I know I haven’t really posted in a month and here I’m about to post twice in one day, and yet the times when I’ve decided to save the second post for another day, it’s never gotten written, so here we go. And really, this post is related to the last one, it just seemed too difficult to combine them.
Last night I had the opportunity to toodle on up to Vermont College of Fine Arts where the Writing for Children & Young Adults residency had just started. I graduated a year ago, but I just can’t make myself stay away–it’s that good. Julie Larios, the fabulous poet, teacher and glorious generalist, always gives wonderful, thought-provoking lectures. Last night was no exception. She spoke about fairy tales and dared us to write retellings that went beyond the hero’s journey of desire to the psychological process of growth through the journey.
It was a great talk, and I agreed with everything–especially her assertion that teens need and can handle more books with darkness and real repercussions and growth. But there was one thing that she said which has been niggling at me and I want to present it as a question here. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
As I said in my last post: we tend to think that we have to save dark, dirty reality for older teens in our books because we don’t want to give young kids ideas that they can’t deal with yet. The specific topic Julie mentioned was death. But what about kids who are already dealing with these dark issues?
For instance, my aunt ended her life when I was five, which was quickly followed within the year by the death of her sister. Before I was ten I had also lost another aunt and a few grandparents. Since death was already a big part of my life, did I need to be shielded from it? I’ve been pretty honest on here, I think, that I was abused a lot as a child. Starting when I was very young. Did I need to be shielded from topics like rape, incest, neglect, and abuse as a child, considering I was already living them?
I know it sounds like these are rhetorical questions, but I don’t mean them to be. I’ve also talked a lot on this blog about why kids living through hard times need fantasy. And I do think that if your situation is fairly hopeless, especially if you use tactics like dissociation to deal, it would probably do more harm than good as a young child to read a book that forces you to look at the dark things in your life.
But take something like death which isn’t connected to wider issues of abuse in general. Eventually we’re all going to face death. We’re all going to die. And we’re nearly all, unless we die quite young, going to deal with the death of a loved one. (And I realize there are some great books for children about death, this is just a philosophical question.) If people we love start dying at a young age, when are we old enough to start to confront the question? When, as the gatekeepers, do we consider our charges mature enough to start looking honestly at this topic?
And of course, we shield children from all sorts of topics. Parents in conservative areas regularly seem to get outraged when their teens are asked to read books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. They claim that their sons and daughters aren’t ready to be confronted with these topics. And yet, statistically speaking, each of those classrooms has at least one girl who’s been victim to rape and one boy who has perpetrated it. So when are they ready to read about it? When do they need to read about it? And when do the children who haven’t been touched about it need to know about it?
Again, I don’t have an answer here. The last thing I want to do is to pre-sensitize children to violence or make them afraid to venture out into their world. But pain and violence exist in the world. Do we really do “children” a service when we shield them from it? And do we have a different duty, as the children’s book gatekeepers, to the children who have already seen or experienced pain or violence? If so, what is, that duty?
I said in my post about To Kill a Mockingbird, that I didn’t think that kids who were currently living through violence and pain needed to have it force-fed to them in their reading by well-meaning teachers in the name of awareness-building. And I believe that. But I also know that when I read Speak as a teen, I was ready and I bawled my eyes out. And when I read Tender Morsels I was profoundly glad that someone had written such an honest book for teens. So anyway, those are my questions and thoughts, conflicting as they are. What do you all think?
When are kids old enough to read about darkness? And is it different for kids who are living in darkness? And if so, how does that change it?