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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