It’s ok to go there: Reading difficult stories to children

On Friday, a plane is shot down over the Ukraine and hundreds of people die. It is beyond tragic.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, I play imaginary games with my girls, singing songs, reading and pretending to be Goldilocks.

We are oblivious to the tragedy. We are oblivious to most tragic events that happen. We play, we create, we imagine, and meanwhile terrible stuff happens elsewhere.

We have talked about it here before – how do you communicate difficult stuff to children? I feel that if it’s communicated delicately and sensitively, knowing about others’ suffering can in many ways benefit children.

I recently came across an article on HuffPost talking about this issue. The writer, B.J. Epstein states:

Literature does much more than teach basic facts or social rules. Children, like adults, have the right to see books that reflect the world around them, and the broader world, too. That means, yes, featuring different races, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, religions, abilities, classes, ages, and so on, and also exploring political, moral, physical, and emotional issues. Children need to see both themselves and other people in the books they read…Kids aren’t as delicate as adults like to think, and they aren’t ignorant of what’s happening around them. They don’t need to be protected from reality. They don’t only need books that teach them about manners and colours. Children have a right to see all sorts of topics represented in the books they read.

Some picture books are like doughnuts – sweet, and easy to digest. Others are like multigrain, sourdough bread. They are tasty, and their goodness and nutrition continues to release over time.

We have been reading a number of children’s books lately of the wholemeal variety that deal with difficult or complex material in subtle ways. My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood My Two Blankets, by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood (Little Hare) is a beautiful book I bought last week from our local bookseller.

On first read, you are aware of a feeling of isolation and uncertainty that the protagonist, Cartwheel experiences. You realise she discovers comfort through a sweet new friendship.

When you read again, though, you are drawn further into the metaphor of the blanket, and the true meaning of the book starts to unveil itself. The illustrations and the words weave a subtle, gentle and uplifting tale, of something difficult, but beautiful. Hasel and Rose Caroline Magerl Hasel and Rose, by Caroline Magerl (Penguin) is another subtle, and beautiful book that recently fell into my hands.

We had to read it two, or three times before I understood its meaning. And this isn’t a criticism. What it means is that it reveals itself over time. It doesn’t underestimate children’s intelligence – emotional or intellectual. It instead plays on their ability to understand difficult stuff.

When I asked Caroline directly about the complexity of the book, she replied:

I believe that growing the ability to deal with complex and difficult situations is of primary importance. Having raised a girl of my own has shown me how vital that is. However it must be presented in a kind and thoughtful manner. Hasel and Rose is an emotionally honest account, showing that trouble does occur in family life. Hopefully it also provides an understanding that there is hope for the future additionally for those suffering, that they are not alone. I hope that in the reading of a book, channels for understanding and honest discussion can be opened. For me this is a better path than the alternative.

A little like My Two BlanketsHasel and Rose is about displacement. A girl, Rose, has moved somewhere new and is struggling to find her place. She discovers Hasel, a worn and unusual toy, and Hasel gives her the courage she needs to make a new friend, Em.

It’s possibly tempting when thinking about writing for children that children are simple creatures and like coloured dots, big shapes and funny rhymes. Children like all those things, but so much more.

My own daughter, Elfie, asks about difficult issues most days.

The day after the Creative Business Women’s High Tea, she asked me what all the money in my tin was for. I said it was to help the girls in Kenya.

‘Why?’ she asked.

‘Some have been treated very badly, and we need to help keep them safe.’ She thought about it, asked questions, and wanted to write a letter to the girls, which we did. (She also thought it would be a good idea to send the ‘baddies’ something nice too so they would feel less bad, and would be less mean to the girls.)

At the CBCA conference earlier this year, Little Hare publisher Margrete Lamond spoke of the benefits of reading subtle and complex books to children.

She talked about the mirror neurons that light up in our brain when we hear about another person’s emotion. The mirror neurons replicate the emotional response the other person experiences, causing us to feel exactly as the other person feels. Physiologically, the only difference in neural activity between ourselves and the other is that we don’t act on the emotion.

Every time the brain pathways light up, we are learning, and each experience of learning helps us develop socially. The effectiveness of our interpersonal relationships, science is now saying, is as fundamental to our survival as food and sex.

When we read a subtle and nuanced story, Margrete said in her talk, our brain pathways also become more subtle and nuanced. We become better equipped at understanding other people’s emotions, and experiences. We develop our interpersonal competencies.

Reading, then, becomes a survival enhancing activity.

In that quiet moment of the evening, when your child sits in your lap, they are absorbing the story you hold in your hands. I think it’s ok to occasionally let them absorb something more subtle, complex and nuanced. Something a bit more wholemeal and a bit less doughnut.

What are your thoughts about this? Do you have books that have unveiled themselves to you over time? 

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  • Deb @ home life simplified

    Wonderful post zanni xx

  • LydiaCLee

    I think a lot of the books reach kids when they are ready – otherwise they just think they’re weird or boring. It’s the same with tragedy. Mind you, there are adults that don’t open their minds to it either…

    • Hmmm. Good point, well made Lydia. I guess we need a variety of books for a variety of tastes too! x

  • Kathy

    Lovely post Zanni – when I look at our collection we have some lovely titles that deal with ‘stuff’ – I read a lot with Miss Yin but must admit to reading a lot less with Little Yang, the boisterous boy. You inspire me anew. Some of ours are: “The Very Best of Friends’ (Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas) – good for dealing with a grandparent’s death, Mutt Dog (Stephen Michael King) – this has homelessness and adoption themes, Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge (Mex Fox) with its beautiful explored themes of loss, memory and friendship and Winston of Churchill (Jean Davies Okimoto) – we bought this one when we lived in Canada and it talks about global warming and saving the polar bears. I have a sweet spot for Stellaluna (Janell Cannon) because of its adoption (we are all different but all the same) theme.

    • GREAT suggestions. Thank you Kathy! I love Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge so much. I will have to search for Stellaluna. Sounds intriguing. x

  • I love how you find a book for all circumstances and educate through their power. Thank you for always reminding me of this x

  • The Plumbette

    I need to find these books as I have too many of the fairy tale variety. I do have one book called “special me” which talks about how every child is different from skin colour to hair type to even twins being different from each other in personality. It talks about how we are all special and deserve to be accepted no matter what we look like.

    • That’s certainly an important topic. I guess it’s important to have a range of stuff on the book shelf, so kids are exposed to more than one thing. 🙂

  • Thoughtful post Zanni. I’ve never seen Hasel and Rose, it sounds very intriguing. I agree with everything you feel. My daughter often asks me questions about the hard stuff, so we are often talking about emotions and scenarios that are a little deep at times. I think children’s books are wonderful at helping convey those kinds of messages too x

    • Yes, they can be a bit of a vehicle for that Carla. I think Hasel and Rose only just came out, so you’d be forgiven for not seeing it yet! x

  • Actually Aleney from Boy Eats World just did a list post with 10 books that teach children about life and those who differ from them. I have to say I do try and censor certain things in regards to my kids, eg about things happening overseas. I will check out these books you have suggested x

    • Thanks for the tip about Aleney’s post. I hadn’t seen it! I think a certain amount of censoring is probably pretty healthy Em. As a journalist you know the stories that certainly aren’t meant for kids’ ears. x

  • Renee at Mummy, Wife, Me

    Such an interesting post, Zanni. We are still reading the doughnut variety at this stage, but after reading this post I think we may broaden our horizons. How adorable is Elfie wanting to give the baddies something?! She is something special that child of yours xx

    • Thank you Renee. Well, you know what I think about that! x

  • We have collected a variety over the years, and as Bell gets older they deal with more serious subjects. Her school puts a huge emphasis on reading and regularly have readings on assembly, which often have me in tears; think Mem Fox’s Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge.
    I love that you have shared your love of reading with the girls Zanni, it’s a gift we all need to share xx

    • Yep, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is one of my favourites, and definitely my favourite Mem Fox book. It’s so moving. x

  • Beautiful post. I have kids that ask a lot of questions and given we expose them to many cultures and people fairly frequently, it goes with the territory. But it’s amazing how empathetic and resilient that exposure is making them. We read so many books and though their are plenty of “donuts”, they tend to go back for the “wholemeal” ones more often. Will have to add these two to our reading list 🙂

    • That’s interesting! It’s probably a reflection of the interesting, cultured journey you are on as a family, that your kids are into the wholemeal books. Hasel and Rose has just come out this week I think, so you should be able to get a copy.x

  • TeganMC

    My mum got me a book when I was little that I’m not entirely sure she realised what it was about. It was called ‘Visiting the Big House’ and it was about a child who was visiting their parent in jail. It wasn’t a particularly subtle book, but I do remember that the pictures were beautiful.

    • Sounds pretty interesting Tegan. Some books certainly stay with you.

  • Loved reading this Zanni. I think as long as a message is conveyed in language that children can comprehend they can be told most things. I think it is important to tell them the truth. Unfortunately these days all my 4 year old wants to read is Pokemon, transformers and spiderman. I really need to do some research to find better quality ! Although the children’s librarian in our local library assures me it is a phase and he will be come bored of them. I hope so because when I read them at night I struggle to to keep my eyes open.

    • Ah…I take my daughter’s literary tastes for granted. I think I would struggle with this Sarah! Hopefully you find something soon you both enjoy! xx