A while back I was in the children’s section of our local public library with some of my siblings, and a certain book caught my eye. It was Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, written by Michael rose and illustrated by Quentin Blake (Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2004). Michael Rosen is a popular children’s writer, the author of classics such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. The Sad Book is apparently one of his more acclaimed works, having recieved the Parents’ Choice Gold Award for 2005. And that award is certainly appropriate. If this book is appropriate for anyone, it is parents rather than children.
The Sad Book
But I personally wouldn’t recommend it even to an adult. The problem with the Sad Book is how it deals with sadness. The pictures are grim and stark, with gloomy tones, and the narrator details the overwhelming pain he feels over the loss of his son. “I loved him very, very much, but he died anyway.” As many reviewers have pointed out, the theme of loss is of course appropriate for children, because it is part of the human condition. But this book doesn’t just deal with loss; it deals with one person’s efforts to cope. And those efforts help paint a despondent world of isolation, confusion, and hopelessness. As for isolation, he says: “Sometimes I want to talk about all this to someone. Like my mum. But she’s not here anymore, either. So I can’t.” There is no one else for him to talk to either. Although he mentions later that lots of family and friends make him happy, all his efforts to deal with grief take place inside him, and there is no real connection or relationship with others. He fights moral confusion: “Sometimes because I’m sad I do bad things. I can’t tell you what they are. They’re too bad.… I tell myself that being sad isn’t the same as being horrible. I’m sad, not bad.” And although some reviewers have argued that the ending (which pictures a bright candle) features a spark of hope, it is clear that the book’s overwhelming message is that there is absolutely no way to get real comfort from grief. Sadness rules the day.
Children’s Literature: Common Problems
The reason I bring up Rosen’s book is that it exemplifies one of two common failings that I think are shared by most children’s fiction today, namely, dealing with adult topics or themes. Children need to face issues in the real world, like grief, and fiction is a way for them to do so. But they also should be protected from some of the darker parts of reality, like despair, until they mature enough to understand and handle it.
But if many children’s books treat children too much like adults, even more of them treat children too to childishly, by offering not an overdose of reality but an escape from it. My siblings are part of the summer reading program at our local library, and I was too not very long ago. When they are rewarded with their choice of a popular children’s book, the offered books, usually popular ones, are almost always pieces of fiction that encourage children to indulge their fantasies and live in imaginary and self-serving worlds of their own, the way a lot of adults do.
The Purpose of Fiction
Good children’s literature should should inform and enhance the world children actually live in, or at least the one that they ought to live in—a world more innocent than the one adults have to know, but also a real world that they must learn to encounter before they can face the darker side of it. The purpose of children’s fiction is the same as the purpose of fiction in general: to experience reality and to offer perspectives on it. A good writer of fiction uses his work as a way to present the experiences and perspectives that combine to create his own world. The reader of good fiction will gain depth and understanding by experiencing that world, and it will inform his own. Both the ideal writer and the ideal reader share the common goal of coming to know and connect with what is outside themselves.
Bad fiction does the opposite. It is often escapist, and rather than discussing and evaluating reality, it attempts to escape or manipulate it. It creates a world, just as good fiction does, but the goal of its world is not to encounter outside reality, but to conform outside reality to the writer and reader’s wishes. It is a way of virtually acting out a selfish position of domination that usually can’t be had for real. But a person who is accustomed to imagining and enjoying selfish, artificial worlds will have a hard time learning to enjoy and contribute to the actual people around him. That is how escapist literature erodes character, while good literature builds character. Neither kind of literature needs to present an explicit moral message in order to be a moral being.
Children’s Literature: Choosing Wisely
It is even more essential that children’s literature be good and moral than it is for literature in general, because childhood is largely when a person’s perspective on the world is formed. A child who grows up thinking of the world as a dark, hopeless, lonely place will see and react to real events in a negative, unambitious, and self-centered way. A child who grows up thinking of the word as a bright, beautiful, connected place, on the other hand, will see and react to events in a positive, undiscouraged, and loving way. That is not to say that a single book like Rosen’s, or even a whole slew of them, will shape the way a child views the world. But a child does usually grow up to be like the people and literature that surround him.
So what is the best way, on a practical level, to make sure that children spend their time in good literature? I think that the goal of any parent, baby-sitter, etc. should be to help the children discern and decide for themselves. I read a book to my brother lately in which a quarrel between two characters was resolved when one of them finally got fed up with the other and refused to be his friend. The story didn’t have an explicit message, but in its world, the person who cared least about the relationship won. So I talked to him about whether that is the right way to handle a relationship, until he could tell me what the problem was.
Another solution is to find and provide engaging children’s books that present a morally ordered world. We have a lot of books from BJU Press. It is a great source for Christian readers, but even if you don’t want books with specifically Christian themes, it carries a good many fairly unreligious ordinary novels for youth that take place in a morally ordered world. Old classics—like Jules Verne, R.L. Stevenson, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and a host of others—are also usually good, although some of them are outdated or difficult to read. And there are retellings of mythology (like Bulfinch’s), Shakespeare (like Charles Lamb’s), and fairy tales (e.g. Andersen’s, Grimm’s,). These old tales, when retold well, have appeal to people of all ages.
[Edit: As Michael Rosen points out in his comment, fairy tales can deal with some pretty mature themes as well, and not always in an innocent and uplifting way.]