Fiction: A Safe Place to Feel

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

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Credit: Phaedra Wilkinson (@phaewilk) MorgueFile

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[3]. 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.[4][5] There is an entire field called Cognitive Literary Studies that has grown in the intersection of literature and cognitive psychology.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] This empathy helps them become more tolerant of people who are different from themselves.[9]

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.[10] 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

[1] The Real Problem with Helicopter Parents by Brink Lindsey, The Atlantic, 0ct 11, 2012

[2] Kids of Helicopter Parents are Sputtering Out by Julie Lythcott-Haims, Slate, July 5, 2015

[3] Why Horror is Good For You (and Even Better for Your Kids) by Greg Ruth, Tor-Com, May 29, 2014

[4] Can Reading Make You Happier? by Ceridwen Dovey, The New Yorker, June 9, 2015

[5] Bibliotherapy: 10 ways books can transform your life by Kirsti Call, Writers’ Rumpus, August 20, 2013

[6] Literature and the Cognitive Revolution: An Introduction by Alan Richardson and Francis F. Steen

[7] Reading: Rehearsal for Real Life? by Valinda Kimmel

[8] Lost for words? How reading can teach children empathy by Miranda McKearney and Sarah Mears. The Guardian, May 13, 2015.

[9] Accio Tolerance! Study finds kids who read Harry Potter books become more tolerant of minority groups by Sarah Eberspacher. The Week, July 30, 2014.

[10] 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.

14 comments

  1. Great post, Marianne! As my kids have gotten older, and our lives busier, it has become harder and harder to keep them off their devices and interested in reading. I tried to start reading aloud to them again, and there was kicking and screaming. But they NEED to experience these emotions and become well-equipped for life. I have to admit that I have been a helicopter and raised my kids (especially the first one) by the book. We over-discuss, over-explain, and get overly involved in their problems sometimes. We are doing the best we can, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do better. Out third child is probably the most equipped to handle things on her own, since we had time to relax by the time she came along. But my two older kids (15, 13) are both extremely anxious children. Any suggestions one how to get them reading independently again- without lying and sneaking a device back out, or sitting there pretending to read but really sleeping? 🙂

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  2. Yes, a thousand times yes! Fiction is the best place to learn about tough emotions and experiences. I’ve always found the idea of shielding kids from books ridiculous, especially if it’s a situation they will eventually encounter in real life.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more. However, I have been caught in public places (i.e. airports) blubbering away at a fictional loss. So, fiction is a safe place to feel—as long as you are reading in a safe place to feel.

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  4. Anyone considering this topic should reread Charlottes Web by E.B.White, published in 1974, This story touches on death in relation to two of the characters. Wilbur the pig is told that he will be shot by Mr. Arable with his .22, then made into bacon and ham, but Wilbur is saved by Charlotte the brilliant and creative spider who dies at the end. The underlying message is about the power of words, but along the way there are difficult emotional lessons learned by all. This forty plus year old story is just as relevant today, as evidenced by the school play I will be attending on Saturday. Middle grade kids will still finish the book wiht tears in their eyes. There is no one else like Charlotte.

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    1. Charlotte’s Web is a great example–and it’s 63 this year, not 40, originally published in 1952. As I recall, there was resistance to its publication, but not because of the death, more because of the fantasy elements. I remember Garth Williams’ illustration of Fern stopping her father from going to the barn, and as I recall it shows an axe, not a gun (can’t recall what the text says). I wonder if it could even be published today. Enjoy the theater! It’s a great play.

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      1. I was reading a Kindle version, but now I found my original hardcover copy and yes, it says copyright 1952. The picture of Fern stopping her father with the ax is on page 2 when John Arable was going to kill the runt. Instead, he gives the little pig to Fern. Later, in chapter seven, when Wilbur is big, the old sheep tells him that he’s being fattened up for slaughter. “…When a pig is to be butchered,… Arable arrives with his .22, shoots the….” So that part is mid way through and it is what inspires Charlotte to say she will save Wilber’s life.
        Great, truly original, story.

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  5. I think books are invaluable to help children develop empathy. Well written and important post, Marianne. For me as an author, my wish is to make people cry, laugh, and feel. That ‘s writing and reading at its most powerful.

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  6. What a wonderful post. It’s true. Parents (and grandparents — yes, I’m guilty of this) do protect our kids too much sometimes. I appreciate all the links, especially the one on bibliotherapy. Thanks.

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  7. Marianne, these are true words of wisdom. I believe them, I’ve lived them, and hope my grandchildren will be raised the same way. Life is full of surprises. A good book (or several) can make a difference in oh so many ways.

    Liked by 1 person

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