I write weekly here about picture books. My role isn’t to wax philosophical about current events or even to give parenting advice. (Perhaps I shouldn’t say this aloud, but I’m largely winging it when it comes to parenting.)
But last Friday’s tragic news out of Connecticut still weighs heavy on my mind, as it does for many. As I wrote at my own site on Sunday, children die every day all over the world in all kinds of horrific and brutal and unfair circumstances, but this, as we all know, hits really close to home in more ways than one. Not surprisingly, I found myself turning to children’s literature as a response to the horror and sadness.
Many parents debated whether or not to tell their children about the shooting. For many reasons, I found myself involved in a family conversation about it with my own young daughters. I also found myself instinctively wanting to cuddle up and read children’s books with them, even more than we already do.
There is hardly a perfect way to link words together for children in a way that can explain such a reprehensible act as an elementary school shooting. But I do know this: Children need comfort and security, particularly in the face of such frightening news. (If you didn’t talk to your children about it, a perfectly understandable choice, they may still sense the nation’s tense vibe right now.)
For a child, it’s rewarding in many directions to cuddle up with a beloved, trusted grown-up who is reading to them. We know that research shows the tremendous scholastic benefits for children whose parents and teachers read aloud to them; that’s just an added bonus. The best part is time spent with a parent, being held close and hearing a good tale. That’s right: Dare I suggest you avoid working too hard right now to find books about grief and loss per se? Perhaps right now just a really good story in the lap of a parent will do.
The stories might even invite discussion. In her preface to The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar writes about fairy tales: “In our haste to use stories as devices for getting children to go to sleep, we forget that the tales are meant to provide opportunities for dialogue and discussion. They create a quiet space at the end of the day, one that frees us and our children from the rapid pace of a culture that relentlessly bombards us with new images and sensations. And they allow us, by proxy, to digest the events that have taken place in the course of the day.”
We certainly don’t need to quiz children after a tale or expect discussion, but it just might happen, especially with fairy tales.
I mentioned that, when it comes to parenting, I’m just making wild guesses most of the time, yes? It’s true. But I found myself saying to my own girls, after our brief discussion about the school shootings, that life can be scary and unfair and that, like Hansel and Gretel, we simply have to be as brave as we can. This isn’t the first time they’ve heard that from me: I’ve given them a steady diet of Grimm tales over the years, knowing that, as Bruno Bettelheim pointed out so long ago, the fairy tale “confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments,” mainly that “evil is as omnipresent as virtue.” Children know instinctively that the world is full of wolves and wily foxes—“Dreadful Things Happen” was the name of a 2010 exhibition of The Brothers Grimm and Maurice Sendak at the Rosenbach Museum & Library—and that the most fundamental tool at our disposal is sheer courage. “[Children] know what’s in Grimm,” Sendak once said, adding that the fairy tales are “telling the truth, just the way it is.”
Life can be scary. Life can be cruel. When that happens, we have to face it with as much fearlessness as we can muster.
For the birth of my first child, I nerded out and took all kinds of childbirth classes. While pregnant with my second, I asked my midwife if I should repeat the classes. I’ll never forget what she said: “I tell women that your best birth plan is: Be brave and get through it.”
So, take some time from your busy schedule. Read. Cuddle. Better yet, read about a brave Grimm protagonist staring down evil in a dark forest. It’ll be scary for a while there, but they’ll have you for comfort till the tale’s end. Nothing feels safer and more secure for your child than your loving embrace-with a good story to boot.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.