• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

Uncomfortable Children’s Books

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I was recently re-discovering one of my favourite childhood books, Good Mister Tom, when I was struck by how disturbing the story was. I remember reading it as a nine or ten year old, and, despite crying and finding it deeply upsetting, I was also well able to cope with the story, and was hugely relieved by the happy ending. I wondered, at what age would I deem my own daughters old enough to deal with its issues. I immediately kicked myself for presuming that I would ever be able to judge this better than my daughters themselves.

When I look around bookshops, I notice a change in the kind of books that line the shelves, compared to when I was a child. I remember so many books set in challenging times, in wars, in the famine, in deep-rooted poverty, in history. It is rare now to see a modern children’s book set in a time of desperate need, a time of trauma. There are heaps of funny, happy, uplifting books. I notice more and more books about challenging issues, set in modern contemporary life. But where are the piles of modern books set in wars, in refugee camps, in extreme poverty? Do children not want to read them, or do adults not want to buy them?

Who are we protecting?

For adults, it is nice and easy to go into a bookshop and pick a book for a child that is “safe”. Books that allow for happy escapism or even books that are educational. A book that doesn’t require anyone to skim it for fear-inducing concepts. It is easy for teachers to stock their classroom with safe books, knowing that they won’t get complaints from parents who didn’t want their children exposed to tales of hardship, war, death etc..

Many of the children’s books that do deal with horrific events or traumatic content, often hide those events in a world of fantasy. Sadness or terror in a world that is twice removed from our own, doesn’t seem quite so threatening in real life. I can’t help wondering, is this always necessary?

Some of the first books and stories we tell our children are fairy-tales. Traditionally fairy-tales have been used as a “safe way” to teach children about real life dangers. While giving them the message not to wander off into the woods, we reassure ourselves that in reality, wolves don’t disguise themselves as grannies, but the child has learned the lesson. That you shouldn’t be greedy and eat sweets you find in a woods (one of many lessons in Hansel and Gretel), or a witch will come and eat you.

We reassure ourselves that we are being kind by teaching our children important life lessons in a gentle fashion, where the threats are not real. Everyone knows that there are no witches that eat greedy children etc. But, I wonder, do the children really know that this is an unrealistic scenario? Do the children know that the threat is not real, like we do?

Children are blessed with imaginations that allows them to believe in witches, in scheming wolves, in evil stepmothers with magic mirrors. If they believe in these things, then surely the fear is real for them? Who are we protecting then, by hiding our lessons and worries and hardships in fairy-tales? Ourselves or our children? And does this not prove that perhaps children don’t need to be protected quite so much as we think?

Saving history

I was never very interested in the subject of history in school, as a young teenager. The teacher had a droning voice and I felt like I was learning about something that would never affect me, something as alien as another planet – more alien in fact, as the future held the possibility of planet travel, but I never believed in back-to-the-past time-travel. I remember very little from those history classes, but I still remember minute details about novels I read at the same time, set in those historical times.

Humans have always been a story-loving species. Without stories, so much of the past would be forgotten. Children are the perfect targets for books set in times of historical hardship, because the emotion the story brings up will stay with them. Reading about people in times of struggle changes how a child thinks. Yes, it can be upsetting to read, and yes, it can be challenging. But through that, and from being able to process those challenges from a modern and arguably easier time, they will develop empathy. Empathy is not a gift. It is a skill. And what a skill to carry into adulthood.

The benefit of uncomfortable feelings

This is a generation where mental health problems are beginning younger and younger in children. Childhood anxiety, depression and low self esteem are on the increase. There is a tendency to panic, to think we must protect our children and teenagers from any hardship, to helicopter around them dropping cotton wool at their feet and shaded glasses on their eyes in case they see something unpleasant. They mustn’t read that book, where people starve to death, where people die violently, where families are ripped apart, because it will make them sad. And yet, those same children and teenagers are allowed online alone, where more real life danger lies than the in woods down the road at night.

I have noticed that a lot parents try to protect children from negative feelings. Distracting them the minute they show sadness, bribing them to stop crying, chastising them for angry outbursts. But just because a feeling is uncomfortable (whether for the child or the adult witnessing it) that doesn’t mean it is negative. I myself was a culprit of this, as a parent, until I saw sense through learning some basic child psychology. Without letting children feel uncomfortable feelings, how will they develop the resilience to navigate life? By teaching them to distract themselves from sadness or anxiety, they simply learn to fear those feelings more, and can end up more anxious. How will they learn to feel the pain, and accept it, and move on, when they are hormonal teenagers, when things go wrong, when they become adults, or when they are online, alone.

What better place than books then, to allow them to experience the full range of human emotion? Giving children the opportunity to experience uncomfortable feelings first in books rather than real life, is surely one of the best protections you can give. Reading the book with them, or alongside them, or simply being available for questions, or hugs, or angry outbursts at the unfairness of it all.

Celebrate Challenging Books

So, I celebrate the writers who are brave enough to write children’s books that deal with the discomforts of life. Books, both fantasy and contemporary, that allow children to experience uncomfortable feelings.

I would never force a child to read an uncomfortable book, and I hope this blog doesn’t suggest that I would. Naturally, there needs to be a level of common sense about when a child is emotionally mature enough to understand and process a book. The joy of books is that the child can close the book if it is too much for them. Their own imagination allows them to go as far as it wants to go, unlike television that creates the image. They are more able to protect themselves than we give them credit for.

So, let us adults be a little braver, and start protecting our children, by not protecting them so much.



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