A couple of months back one of my writing groups had an email discussion that went something like this. Details have been changed to shield the identities of the child readers.
Writer 1: Well, I almost just had heart failure over a dead dog. I agreed to beta read a middle grade story about a girl and her dog for someone in my other critique group. My 10 year old niece who loves dogs was visiting and I started reading it to her, confident that I knew the whole story because I had seen it in development. We read about 60 pages together, then she took it home. She’s a reluctant reader, so I was thrilled when she bonded with this MG novel.
Tonight the phone rang. My brother asked whether I knew that the dog dies. My niece was really upset and didn’t want to finish the book. Holy @#$%! I told him that the dog did not die in the version I’d read. There were thirty pages left – I suggested he read ahead to see what happens. A few minutes later he called back. Sure enough, the girl in the story was mistaken. It was some other dog that died. His daughter decided to finish the book.
Obviously I should have read the whole updated version myself first. Wow. That was nearly a huge disaster.
Writer 2: Oh man. I can sympathize. This summer, my son read a highly recommended book called The One and Only Ivan about a gorilla living in a makeshift side show zoo. One of the supporting characters, an elephant, dies in the story. My son was devastated because he has a particular softness for elephants. It was a great book and the end was uplifting, but at that particular place in the book there were lots of tears shed. I guess we can only protect our loved ones so much. Life will disappoint at times and we can only be there with loving arms and a box of tissues.
And that brings me (call me Writer 3) to the point of this blog post.
There has been a fair amount of press in the past decade or so about helicopter parenting, a trend that occurs mainly in families with two college-educated parents at the head. Helicopter parenting is loosely described as the practice of being so involved in children’s lives that they are protected from most of the typical bumps in the road of child and teen development—including the experience of normal but difficult emotions associated with disappointment, loss, and failure. Colleges and universities are seeing growing numbers of young adults who do not know how to make their own decisions or think their way through their own challenges. There are increasing levels of anxiety and depression, and an inability to cope with routine setbacks like a poor grade or a broken relationship. In addition to being under intense amounts of stress, these young adults have not yet had the opportunity to experience what it feels like to go through something difficult and come out the other side.
I’m no expert, and I’ve been guilty of hovering too close to my own children at times. But I’d like to suggest a steady diet of quality fiction throughout childhood as an inoculation against the inevitable bruises and bumps of life, including books that make children cry or even books that scare them. This isn’t my original idea. Bibliotherapy is a counseling tool that uses specific stories, books, and poems to help someone work through a personal issue. There is an entire field called Cognitive Literary Studies that has grown in the intersection of literature and cognitive psychology.
It may sound strange, but the idea of otherwise happy children crying over a good book gives me hope for the future. It’s not that I want children to be sad. It’s that I want them to be resilient. Projects fail. Friends move away. Pets die, and so do people. It’s life. It can hurt. It can feel like a huge hole in your life. Children need to know that these feelings are normal, and that they can survive them. Fiction is a safe place to experience those emotions. In fiction, the outcome of the tragedy is not real, but the feelings it evokes in the reader are. When children inevitably experience loss or failure or disappointment in their own lives, they’ll recognize the feeling. They’ll know they’ve felt it before and survived. Children who are already dealing with loss can recognize themselves in the pages of books. There are other benefits. Children who read quality fiction tend to be more empathetic, understanding others people’s feelings better as well as their own. This empathy helps them become more tolerant of people who are different from themselves.
I don’t know whether Writer 1’s relative would have kept his child from reading the book if it turned out that the dog did die. I hope not. It’s possibly that this dad was only asking for a heads-up about the book’s content. It is helpful, as a parent, to know in advance what to expect. But when you don’t, it’s a teachable moment. Nasty surprises don’t come with warning tags in real life. But it’s the fortunate child who’s had a chance to rehearse the experience first, through books.
Of course, loving arms and a box of tissues will always help, too.
References and Further Reading
 Why Horror is Good For You (and Even Better for Your Kids) by Greg Ruth, Tor-Com, May 29, 2014
 Bibliotherapy: 10 ways books can transform your life by Kirsti Call, Writers’ Rumpus, August 20, 2013
 Literature and the Cognitive Revolution: An Introduction by Alan Richardson and Francis F. Steen
 Lost for words? How reading can teach children empathy by Miranda McKearney and Sarah Mears. The Guardian, May 13, 2015.
 Accio Tolerance! Study finds kids who read Harry Potter books become more tolerant of minority groups by Sarah Eberspacher. The Week, July 30, 2014.
 Sites such as Common Sense Media offer reviews of kidlit with details about content to help parents choose developmentally appropriate books. Many parents, however, choose to let their children read “free-range.” That’s a whole other topic that some well-known writers have weighed in on.