6 Nov 2013

Reading about unpleasant things

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.

Liz Cottrill
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.

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
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.

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 183-5
I 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.


  1. I've been rolling these thoughts over in my mind for the past few weeks after hearing a teacher request permission to have her students (small, private Christian school) read "Speak."

    From "the little pansy man" to this topic. I only wish we were all together to really hash it out.

  2. This is an excellent and well-balanced post!

  3. Where did my comment go? I did write great post and very thought provoking.

    I largely still help choose my kids reading (because I work at the library and buy the presents). Occasionally - I get it wrong. I don't pre-read everything (because, seriously, who has the time?), but my kids are excellent at letting me know if it's something they don't enjoy or is too "old" for them.

    I love and am so proud that with books and viewing they know what they are ready for and generally, they aren't ready (at 13 and 14) for a lot of those issues yet. Hell, I'm not ready for some of those at 44!! Call us naive, sheltered, but that's OK too. We all have to decide what we're comfortable with and what we're not. It will be different for all families and for people within those families.

  4. Jeanne, this is just the issue we're dealing with at my son's school. And his teacher echoed Mason's and Liz's arguments. My worry is that we don't have a sense of how young is too young, and that if we feel that you only have a story if you have a dark past, more kids will create such a past to fit in, to seem interesting to their peers.

  5. As Liz Cottrill's eldest daughter referenced in her CMI blog (which was written at my insistence) and her editor as well as her Living Books Library partner, I thought I should respond to your post here.

    I think you are grossly misrepresenting what my mom wrote, and what she intended. If you are at all familiar with our ministry at Living Books Library, what living books are, and what books we recommend, you would not link what Liz says with the type of "dark" books and themes you are mentioning. In fact, the three examples that Liz shares where children were helped by books were most definitely *not* dark books at all. Carolyn Haywood's "Here's a Penny"?? "Heidi"??" Far from "dark, no matter how you define that term. Even "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", while dealing with mature topics handles them in such a way that is circumspect and edifying, much like the books you mentioned (though for older readers) like "Number the Stars", "Letters from Rifka", and "The Endless Steppe."

    The reason we love the books we do, recommend them heartily, and try to preserve them, is that they are exactly NOT the type of "teen trauma" books that Ms. Gurdon bewails. In fact, both mom and I whole-heartedly agreed with her article in the Wall Street Journal. The books we treasure are written with a worldview firmly rooted in faith. Not the post-modern, sensationalist, experiential drivel that is predominant today. While difficult things may happen to Heidi and Penny and Francie, the books end well-resolved, with hope. This teaches yet another important lesson to our children--that this world will pass away with all its troubles, yet we who believe are promised a better world to come where pain and death are no more. These are living books.

    And we sincerely hope your daughter never has to "practice" those things you mentioned, but she will have to deal with death in some capacity. Reading books that rightly deal with that topic, as my mom expressed, will help her when that time comes for friends or loved ones. My mother was not even saying that children who had dealt with difficulties would find "validation" as you put it, but that by reading of situations that they may not have yet experienced, it would help them when they went through difficult trials to know that they were not the only ones. I'm very glad your daughter had peers to talk to who had been through natural disasters and could relate to them in the real world. Our advocacy of living books was for children to experience things that they had not yet encountered. Much like the wide vistas we get from reading of other cultures and lands, living books where characters face real situations that we haven't had to partake of yet teach us empathy and do help prepare us to face trials in our own lives when they come.

    Christian parents will keep in mind Philippians 4.8 when it comes to which books they spread before their children. None of the books Ms. Gurdon cites would pass that test. Hopefully, every book we recommend at www.livingbookslibrary.com will, as that model is always before us.

    I'm sure this is much too long for a comment, but lacking any other way to contact you directly, I pray you will forgive the intrusion. I'd welcome your feedback here or if you care to email us directly at info@livingbookslibrary.com, that would be lovely.

    Thank you for your time,


  6. Beautifully said, Emily. My prayer is that our libraries and the LIVING books on our shelves will serve to encourage and equip a generation living in darkness to live in His glorious light. Your family is a blessing to the homeschooling community.

    Robin Pack
    Children's Legacy Library

  7. Liz would agree with your last sentence. It was not what she was advocating. We are changed by stories. Goodnight Mr. Tom is an example Susan used at a L'Abri conference of an abused child.At an age appropriateness, we would introduce the books Even Shakespeare has shades of immorality. The new normal is coming into modern books so there should be huge discernment. Charlotte wrote: “Some of us will not even let children read fairy tales because these bring the ugly facts of life too suddenly before them.” (CM Vol. 3 p. 184) She continues on to say fairytales can provide a screen and a shelter. Lori Lawing wrote here about it: http://childlightusa.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/fairy-lore-a-screen-and-a-shelter-by-lori-lawing/

  8. I think Liz initialized this conversation to push parents into thinking beyond that perfect little world, which is frankly non-existent. She was trying to start a conversation that clearly needs to be had.

    That said, my first reaction to Liz's post was that there is a huge gray area between allowing a natural death and some of the twisted stuff you can find in books - even in "Living Books". And you know what? Those twisted aspects are real life too, but clearly there is a line that each of us must draw. We must decide where to draw that line for our own family and for our individual kids too, based on personality and exposure.

    It's sort of like getting on an interstate and seeing that the speed limit is 70 but then seeing another sign that warns that the minimum speed is 40. Both going over or under those limits can be unsafe and will get you a traffic ticket.

    Liz and Jeanne are both advocating that we be thinking people. We are doing our kids no favor by sheltering them from everything, but we also must make decisions about how much to expose them to. It's not enough for us to trust a book list. What's right for my family is undoubtedly not right for yours.

    Thank you ladies for the conversation.

  9. I'm not familiar with the post you referenced, Jeanne and as I'm in the midst of unpacking hundreds of books into my new but temporary home I have little time to head over and read it. But I do have a few thoughts...

    I did use literature and good living books as a way to introduce the unpleasant things to my children... but the material we used was quality literature, living books that have stood the test of time. Contrast that with modern fiction and/or modern books that I tend to steer clear of.

    So, yes/no and yes/no. I agree with both points of view. We did introduce some unpleasant topics via literature but not with the same material that Ms. Gurdon was referring to.

  10. Jeanne, I really appreciated this article. Though I know that LBL did not *mean* to endorse dark reading, I know far too many people who would take it as license to stop thinking about what their children are reading and taking the time to do their due diligence in terms of pre-reading. I think your article along with LBL's (which I loved, by the way) offer a nice, round picture on what to consider in a child's reading and how to go about choosing books...

  11. Excellent post, Jeanne. I'm not sure I can fully buy into the idea of "practice through story." That makes me think of people who "prepare" for the death of a terminally ill loved one. You can prepare all you want, but you're never really going to be prepared at the end.

  12. I think both the article that Liz Cotrill wrote and your article compliment each other. I like that you took the topic a bit further and discussed some of the concerns that I have in this area.

    There are many topic's where it is perfectly fine to leave the naivete of a child intact, in my ever so humble opinion (particularly in this day and age). So many of the current books aimed at middle/high school children just don't do that - Living or otherwise. They open up doors to things they would not have imagined in the first place and truly, they did not need to know about until they were older and out of the midst of it. Innocence lost cannot be recovered. Some of those storys/topics I read about back in the day I simply did not need to have to worry about at the time. I wish I could go back and unread them. I know they may help a few people who are living the topic at the moment, but in general, we don't need to be presenting such things to our children until they are much older than 15 years old.

  13. It is thought provoking and something I take for granted. We largely choose the books our children read and on occasion they have chosen their own with our blessing, but so far they have not sought books for dark themes. When they have come across such, I know they have come and discussed it with us. I'm sure there will come a time when I won't know what my teens are reading, but I am hoping we are helping them choose and comprehend well.
    I have enjoyed both articles so Thankyou for sharing.

  14. Firstly I found the following quote sad "We do not give our children books to pacify them or entertain them". Whilst books should be part of learning - it is SO important to make reading pleasurable and an opportunity to enjoy and entertain - have a laugh, read something silly. I read books for pleasure so why can't children. Not everything needs to be about learning. It can turn children off the "pleasure of reading" and that is tragic.

    Secondly - its all about balance. Whilst I gave my children books about the Holocaust and I too read these growing up I don't think they need to read every topic under the sun just in case they have that experiences. There are other ways of learning and not everything needs to be read in books. I have had long conversations with my boys (when young) that didn't require grabbing a book about the topic. And go at the pace of the child.

    Thirdly, children need to learn to choose their own books and not always driven by adults and adults need to relax a little in this area. I allowed mine to select their own books at the library - they didn't always make wise choices and sometimes I stepped in, other times I didn't. I think its important to back off with selection as they mature. Once again, this is common sense.

  15. Where is the "like" button? Oh, there isn't one so I will have to put that into words. Having read the original post by Liz and your's here, I think you've done an excellent job here of putting your personal thoughts on this issue into words. Reading these, I'm reminded of the "Escapist Literature" article at AO, and also of a recent article in Imprimis (July/Aug 2013) on YA selections today.
    I very much appreciate the thoughts you've put here, Jeanne. I do agree with Emily in this point: "Christian parents will keep in mind Philippians 4.8 when it comes to which books they spread before their children."

  16. It is so not necessary to know about all the bad and sad things in the world. There were many things that I did not learn until I was an adult, and even then there are some I wish I didnt know.

    I dont think children need to know in advance. I think if it happens to them, then they will need all kinds of support and part of that can be fiction that helps them know that they are not alone. But it also needs to demonstrate clearly what is right and what is wrong behaviour.

    If we had to read in advance for every problem we could encounter, we would never have time to actually live. There is a place for understanding the world through stories and that will look different for each person who walks through life.

    We cannot apply one rule to everybody: "Everybody must read 'x' books" to be prepared for life. We are much too different from each other.

  17. I'm not entirely sure how we missed a lot of those problems that can come up with teen reading with our older children, but we have. It's good to be aware of it though, just in case, as we have another set of readers coming on up now. Interesting.

  18. The same discussion written years ago by Wendy Capehart of AO:
    Still searching my brain for when I did hear Susan Macaulay speak on this subject at a L'Abri conference. Will post it if I find it!!

  19. Ah, so much to say on this topic that I don't know where to begin. You see, I write YA. I also write children's books. The YA authors I know are lovely, amazingly talented folks. But some of them definitely push the envelope, so to speak. Take, for example, a sweet, funny guy I met at a writing conference a few years ago who wrote a Hamlet YA (retelling) that began with a girl taking her top off. Or maybe that was his MacBeth retelling. Anyway, you get the picture. We might call these books twaddle or we might not since they are Shakespeare retellings. You have to be careful when choosing books.

    Jeanne, I love the Charlotte Mason quote you posted. Some are too sensitive for books that contain sensitive topics. My Hannah is one of those people. She began reading Night and got to the sad bits, tossed the book under her desk, and never opened it again. Which brings me to my main point. One thing we have to give our children is the ability to rightly divide the Word of Truth. The Bible tells us to think on whatsoever is pure and holy and good. So I am not sure why anyone would EVER read dark literature. Or watch dark movies and such, for that matter. Throw rotten tomatoes at me if you will, but we only have one go at this life, and I would rather err on the side of obedience to God's Word than risk harming my sensitive child's psyche with a book, however well-intentioned. As I write this, a promo for a risqué show just came on -- while we were watching The Cosby Show reruns. It's so prevalent. Everywhere you look, your eyes fall on sexual depravity or murder or God knows what. With that being the case, it's extra important, in my opinion, to teach our kids to make good decisions about what they put before their eyes. I am thrilled that Hannah chose not to read Night. I love and respect Elie Weisel. And our other daughter met him and will treasure that day for the rest of her life. But see, each child is different. That's part of the whole "born persons" idea Miss Mason teaches us about. I loved Carolyn Haywood's Penny book. In fact, I love all her books. I don't think there is a thing wrong with using safe literature that addresses difficult issues. But Jeanne, your post brought clarification to the matter. In this day and age, there is so much pushing the envelope going on -- on purpose though I honestly don't know why -- that it was really necessary! And timely!

    One characteristic of YA literature is that it's edgy. If it's NOT edgy, it won't get snatched up by a publisher. And we all want to sell books... Be forewarned. :)

  20. To me, it's not a question of "dark" or "light" reading, or what the actual topic is, but how it's handled and why. A few months ago I was a bit surprised to see my 9yo daughter had suddenly turned from the stacks of American Girl books she had latched on to for the last year and was deep into *Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry*, a book about racism in the American South. I flipped through it to see how graphic the violence got and then decided to let her read it, after warning her that it wasn't like the children's books she was used to, and everything did *not* come out OK. She wanted to persevere. She saw that Cassie and her family were admirable people and she wanted to read more. And she finished it, and though she was ready for something lighter she did not seem to regret it.

    A few years before, I found myself deep into reading aloud the story of the Battle of Roncevalles with my then 6 and 5 year old. I forgot that Roland and all his comrades died a tragic death on the battlefield. When I stopped and looked up, they both had tears streaming down their faces. And for several months after that I couldn't read them a story without assuring them that it came out all right. But I don't regret that one either.

    It's not that my children need to "relate" to blatant racism or wholesale slaughter. But these things are real parts of the world. And even if neither ever comes into their own life, they do need to know and be reminded from time to time that things don't always come out OK, that good doesn't always prevail, but that they can do right anyway. So it's not a question of what the story is about, but how it is addressed.

  21. Great discussion Jeanne! I think there's a difference between books that touch on the bad enough to carry a redemptive story vs. books that revel in it.

  22. That's what I was trying to say, Naomi and Queen of Carrots, and I think I wasn't terribly clear in my haste. But within that idea you still have to remember who each child is. Rich and important as it is and full of literary and human merit, Hannah wasn't able to read Night. And Hilary found it so rich and fulfilling that she begged me to ask her former school if she could join them on the field trip to meet Elie Weisel even though she was no longer attending that school. So within the realm of redemptive literature, there's still a place for treating each child as a unique individual and as homeschoolers we can allow for individual needs to affect our/their book choices.

    There's still no need for the kind of twisted, edgy stuff you often see in YA, though. And I think that's what Megan Cox Gurden was getting at in her blog. So really, Jeanne and Liz Cottrill are in agreement.

  23. Yes, I like the framework of a redemptive story versus books that revel in it. I attended a public junior high in North Chicago. We had to read stories about kids in dysfunctional homes, dealing with drug addiction and the temptation to try drugs. While I too came from a family with major issues, my reaction was to flee what some in my family embraced. So, books that were assigned to us to read a "real" were traumatic to me. I wanted to grow up, marry, stay married, give my children a safe home full of joy, etc. The book that hurt me the most was Lord of the Flies (eighth grade). I was LIVING Lord of the Flies at school. Why on earth would I want to read about it, too?

    I think redemptive stories can help when carefully selected. Books that revel in it or try to make it real for the sake of connecting to children in trauma are not all that helpful from my perspective.

  24. I think another factor is that stories that are too close to the problems of a child's real life are just likely to be dull . . . I wouldn't bother to give my children books about children with sick or disabled parents. That would just be boring. But books with adversity of various sorts that is persevered through, but of a different kind, allows for simultaneous escape and fortification.


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