What is the role of children’s literature? Should it be uplifting: a shining example of how we wish life could be like? Or should it reflect reality? How much reality? Who’s reality?
For the past several months I have been reading The Invisible Child by Katherine Paterson (author of Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved). I have been savoring it slowly, one chapter at a time. She writes about the role of a writer, the role of children’s literature, and how adults think too much. Well, that last one is really just my summation.
The latest chapter I read was titled “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?”. Paterson chronicles her process in writing Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom, a book she describes as a “disturbing tale of war and betrayal” (174). She has also written about the death of a child, a sister who hates her twin, and children in general who are searching for love and acceptance because their reality is lacking.
Many times I have heard it said that children’s literature should be an escape, that it shouldn’t deal with the harsh reality of the world. Some would say that children should be protected from the world, kept safe from the burdens of adulthood. To some extent I agree. My five year old does not hear or see the news. When I do talk about world events, it is with a filter. I have that luxury. There is not war in my backyard.
But we do talk about war. We do talk about death. Hard topics do come up and I do not believe we should gloss them over. I do not believe children’s literature should either. There are many children who do not have the privilege of childhood innocence; who’s reality is far from the paradise we hope our children grow up in. They need books that gently handle the hard topics of family in prison, death, and war.
Maybe I don’t tell my 5 year old about the black father that was shot by police, but there is a school full of children who don’t have that luxury because they are classmates with his daughter. They are facing that reality. Do we leave them to process for themselves, isolated and alone? Please read what a teacher in that school posted on Facebook: Rebecca Lee's Post
Literature has the power to come in and speak to a child when they won’t listen to anyone else. Paterson writes, “It is my hope, of course, that children will find these characters to be real children like themselves - that they will be able to see themselves in them and then as they come to love and forgive these people on the page to be able to forgive and love their own deepest selves” (48).
While reading this chapter my mind kept returning to a book I read recently, The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. It chronicles a 12 year old’s journey through middle school life and the realization that her sister is addicted to heroin. There is a point in the book when Charlie is coming to terms with her sister’s addiction and mentions that she doesn’t look like a drug addict. She was a soccer player, part of school clubs and got good grades. She wasn’t greasy or unwashed, like the D.A.R.E. videos showed.
The Seventh Wish has been removed from school and library shelves and Messner has been uninvited for school visits. There are those who think it is too much for a young child to read. That the subject is too heavy. That they should be protected from this reality. But my state of New Hampshire is fighting a heroin epidemic, as many states are, and there must be children who fit this character’s description. There are children who need to read this book to know they are not alone. That they are seen and heard and their stories have value.
These types of books bite through the perceived childhood ideal. There are so many children starved of characters to relate to; characters who do not live the ideal, who’s reality is so far from paradise. To feed them only children’s literature that is tied up neatly with a bow is to disregard these children’s life stories. Paterson also writes that “[her] task is to see through the disturbance to the unity so marvelously built into the Creation - to somehow find my way through the cacophony of reality to the harmony of truth” (176). Books that handle harsh reality don’t leave the children there, they bring them through - not to a neat little package, but hopefully to a place of peace despite reality.
So, thank you Katherine Paterson and Kate Messner. Thank you for writing the hard stuff in such beautiful ways.