This article appeared in the Guardian (UK) Writing in the Wall Street Journal, columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon argued that contemporary fiction for teens is now "so dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18".
This is a thought-provoking argument and it unleashed a firestorm of opinion. My own view is that the average teenager is not likely to encounter the dark and sordid side of life described in some of these novels. However, a sheltered teen from a wealthy family whose worst experience is being grounded or having their pocket money stopped is not the same as a young person struggling to survive in a situation of abuse, rape, incest and violence. I think the point is this: are novelists sensationalizing these real aspects of life in order to sell books? Have we, as a society become so hardened that only the most shocking of descriptions and experiences will move us? Will reading about these terrible experiences help the very young people who are undergoing the same sort of tribulation? One thinks immediately that possibly a poverty-stricken teen would not have access to either books or/and education, but I don't wish to split hairs. How can books help kids cope with life?
Life issues are sometimes a challenge for kids to comprehend. Although most parents wish to shield their children from the tragic side of life, many times reality intervenes and the parent may be powerless to adequately comfort their child when dealing with a sad or traumatic situation. Death, disease, divorce, moving house, loss of a pet, bullying, experiences with alcoholic or abusive parents, and drugs form part of a long list of potentially negative life experiences. The death of a beloved grandparent, parent, sibling, friend, or an important adult can have a potentially devastating effect on a young person. Books can offer the kind of therapy that a child will appreciate and in a format that they can understand.
Stories, either fiction or non-fiction, enable children to identify with characters and sad or devastating events and relate these experiences to their own lives. Children are then able to recognize and understand how other people respond to frustration and disappointment. This helps children develop empathy and understanding of human behavior. It can also enable children to respond to discussing issues with a parent or responsible adult such as a teacher or therapist.
Today’s books also have opened up discussions on a variety of previously taboo topics or at least topics that were avoided. These issues can include:
- bullying at school;
- negative comments regarding a child’s weight, appearance, or lack of athleticism;
- tolerance of differences among peers, such as income levels, religious beliefs, nuclear families vs. broken homes, etc.;
- a parent’s history with substance, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse;
- long term changes in living situations, such as the arrival of stepchildren or grandparents;
- issues such as homosexuality and lesbianism, especially where a parent decides to ‘come out’;
- unique abilities and challenges faced by peers or family members with special needs, i.e., autism or Down Syndrome, debilitating illness, or illness or trauma resulting in disability, etc.
Regardless of the issue tackled or the story composed, a book’s therapeutic effectiveness will be enhanced by:
- age-appropriate language;
- honest and realistic characterizations;
- an avoidance of explicit preaching while allowing the reader to make the moral connection through critical thinking;
- a good, well-written story with relevant illustrations
Books are essential guidelines between covers and the younger kids start reading, the better they will be equipped to deal with the many curved balls that will be flung at them.
Of course, even the best written book embracing a particular problem is not a cure-all, and parents should take note that books cannot replace the expert advice of a health care professional where necessary. However, using books for the purpose of healing will often be a solid step in helping a child understand and accept the realities of life, even when harsh and unpleasant.