In a recent post on the ChildlightUSA Weblog, Liz Cottrill, homeschool mum, and owner of a living books lending library (swoon), wrote a post entitled The Danger of Safe Reading. If you haven't, do go and read it now. I'll be here when you finish.
We do not give our children books to pacify them or entertain them, but to enrich and feed them. They naturally learn to accept difficulties and the reality that life is beautiful and full of wonder, as well as sown with inexplicable pain and misfortune. It is vital to prepare them for these eventualities by allowing them to “practice” through story. Their stories instruct them, enlighten, equip, and supply them with a wider range of knowledge than the circle of life around them affords, and books are their best teachers.In the post, Liz uses three little stories to explain how books about troubling issues can be worthwhile for children to read. She explains how the children reading books about children going through the same problems as they are feel less alone and more 'normal'. She encourages parents to allow their children to face the dangers of life through the pages of literature without being afraid.
It's a good argument, and it's one that I have heard before as an answer to the Megan Cox Gurdon article in the Wall Street Journal on June 4th, 2011. What? You mean to say you didn't read it? If so, you'd better do so now. Off you go!
In this article, Megan argues against the increasingly dark themes contained in contemporary young adult literature. Topics like rape, incest, kidnapping, pederasty (I had to look this one up), sex trafficking, drug use, sexual assault, homophobia, self mutilation, eating disorders and murder. Remember, we're talking about adolescent literature, here. 12 to 15 year olds.
The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.If you weren't on Twitter back in June of 2011, let me tell you what happened next. Basically, Megan rocked the Twitterverse. The number two trending topic that day, and for days afterward, was a frenzied and nasty attack on her article - and on Megan herself. The YA world was angry - really, really angry - and they were after Megan's blood.
Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.
Megan Cox Gurdon
The book industry basically felt that young people (12-15 year olds, we're talking about, remember) have a right to read whatever they want. Parents should not discern between good and bad books, and should definitely not censor their children's reading. They argued that reading about these issues help those children going through their dark turbulent adolescent years, and that for today's youth, that's the norm. Apparently, the gentle kind adolescent experience doesn't exist any more. Megan's opponents argued that the books explain what these experiences felt like. Many of the Tweets were written under the hashtag, YASaves, and people were encouraged to write about their positive experiences with this type of literature. Being able to identify with others going through what you're going through - even if the co-sufferer is a character in a book - apparently saves young lives.
Now I'm not for one moment implying that kind, wise, sensible homeschool mama, Liz Cottrill, is suggesting that we read books about pederasty, incest and murder, but she is suggesting something similar, isn't she; that books about difficult issues can help validate children and give them something to relate to. It's okay, you're not going through this awfulness alone.
This may be so, but what about my 11 year old daughter? Liz tells me that 'it is vital to prepare them for these eventualities by allowing them to “practice” through story.' Does that mean that I should expose Jemimah to books about separation, divorce, teen pregnancy, homosexuality and death? After all, my daughter, living in rural Victoria in a conservative Christian family is very sheltered, but even she has friends whose parents are divorced. Young people in our church have had 'shotgun weddings'. Some of my best friends are gay. Will reading about these things help Jemimah to better relate to these people? Will it help her see them as more 'normal'? Do I want her to think that anyhow?
They're interesting questions. For me as an adult, it does not help me like my gay friends better to know what goes on in their bedrooms. I don't know about you, but I don't usually talk about that stuff with my friends of either sexual orientation. I mean, there is such a thing as too much information. My daughter knows many gay people, but she doesn't know very much about homosexuality because she doesn't need to. She doesn't even know that some of my gay friends are gay. Why would she? It's not something we talk about over fish and chips in the park. Having her read books with a homosexual protagonist is not going to help her relate to my friends. It will probably just make her feel very uncomfortable about people that she currently likes very much.
Would a book about separation and divorce help her relate better to her best friend? Maybe, but probably not. You see, her friend Princess Jay's parents divorced several years ago. All may not be perfect in her life - whose life is? - but the angst over the separation of her parents is not fresh and raw. When Jemimah talks to Princess Jay about her parents, she is 'learning through reality' rather than 'practicing through story'. Would reading a story help? While separation and divorce are common in this country, they are not so common in my daughter's life. The majority of our Christian friends and family are very happily married, praise God.
In Liz Cottrill's article, she cites three examples where reading dark books helped specific children. I am so glad that books helped those kids, I really am. When we went through those terrible days after the flood, I was really grateful for the free literature provided by one of the government agencies that detailed what it was like for kids living through natural disasters. I read the little stories with Jemimah, and they gave us a starting point to talk about what she was going through. In reality, though, she found much more relief in talking to other kids in town that had gone through the same thing. They were real.
Even if we do agree that books might help children going through difficult times, what about the rest of our kids? What about Liz's assertion that it is vital that we prepare our kids for pain and misfortune by allowing them to "practice" through story? Should I set my daughter free amongst a list of living books and give her free rein? Should my daughter read books that teach her to 'accept difficulties and the reality that life is beautiful and full of wonder, as well as sown with inexplicable pain and misfortune'? Naturally, in many circumstances the answer is yes. Charlotte Mason says that we are educated by our intimacies:
We temper Life too much for Children.––I am not sure that we let life and its circumstances have free play about children. We temper the wind too much to the lambs; pain and sin, want and suffering, disease and death - we shield them from the knowledge of these at all hazards. I do not say that we should wantonly expose the tender souls to distress, but that we should recognise that life has a ministry for them also; and that Nature provides them with a subtle screen, like that of its odour to a violet, from damaging shocks. Some of us will not even let children read fairy tales because these bring the ugly facts of life too suddenly before them...
But we may run no needless risks, and must keep a quiet, matter-of-fact tone in speaking of fire, shipwreck, or any terror. There are children to whom the thought of Joseph in the pit is a nightmare; and many of us elders are unable to endure a ghastly tale in newspaper or novel. All I would urge is a natural treatment of children, and that they be allowed their fair share of life, such as it is; prudence and not panic should rule our conduct towards them.
Charlotte Mason School Education p 183-5I do not shield my daughter from the pain and suffering of this life. This year Jemimah has learned much about the atrocities of the Holocaust through the eyes of Rifka in Letters from Rifka, Esther in The Endless Steppe, and Annemarie and Ellen in Number the Stars. Through the eyes of these children she has some idea of what WWII was like. These books helped ready her for the awfulness of the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, last month, an experience that was difficult even for jaded adults.. This is not what we're talking about, though, is it? This is not divorce or adoption or the death of a loved one.
Miss Mason is right when she warns us not to temper the wind too much to the lambs. Liz Cottrill is right when she says that stories instruct, enlighten, equip, and supply children with a wider range of knowledge than the circle of life around them affords. Megan Cox Gurdon is right too, though, when she warns that books focusing on dark or difficult scenarios helps to normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.
I allow Jemimah to choose her own books from our home library. I encourage her input at the local bookshop too, but the final decision is mine. We read books about dysfunctional families, about modern families, and about families not like ours, but I will always ensure that she reads many more books about families that are like us. Whilst having an aversion to overtly preachy and morally sweet Christian books - Elsie Dinsmore makes me green - I love it when Jemimah reads that other sensible, normal families have family worship, keep the Sabbath, and consider family their best friends. I love it when she reads about other kids that homeschool, do nature study, and listen to Classical music. I introduce her to admirable men and women and children of faith, and others who are just good people with great characters. I expose her to Aborigines, and African Americans, and Australian refugees, and the intellectually and physically handicapped, but we read lots about traditional Australian families too, because that's what we are, and that's what I want her to consider 'normal', not divorce, sex before marriage and homosexuality. And there are many, many more things that I don't want her to 'practice through story' at all. Pederasty, self mutilation and incest being three.
She is only 11, after all, and I plan to keep her from the dangers of life just a little while longer.