Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Truth in fiction: Helpful or Hurtful to young readers?

After receiving an e-mail from a school librarian objecting to what she called "many problems" that make  Kyleah's Tree "inappropriate" for her students, I asked her to be more specific.

 She said, "Kyleahs tree has death, runaways, orphans,foster families, physical abuse, sexual abuse, alluding to BIA police as corrupt with drugs, adults using children to benefit their careers. Too many problems for the kids I work with."

Of course it isn't written for the younger elementary students; grades K-3, but for children old enough to read and enjoy it, I think they should be given the opportunity. The sexual abuse in this story was not the main theme, and was not explicit. I felt it carried an important message for kids to hear, but I  believe I handled it delicately. The implied lesson for young readers is that grown ups are not always right. I want children to know that if anyone tries to touch them inappropriately, or even talks about it, they, (the adults) are wrong. I want the kids to know that it is never their fault, and that it is okay to scream for help and to tell on the adult. I put this scene in my story, for, like it or not, it happens. 

Below is the reply I sent to the librarian. 

Thanks for informing me of the issues in Kyleah's Tree that you find objectionable. I'm sure you are not the only adult who feels that way. The book was written mainly for teens and preteens, but after giving it much thought, I still don't see where it is inappropriate for children as young as nine.  I don't think I'll make any major changes, for doing so would betray my convictions about "True Fiction," and my purpose for writing. Let me explain:  

Literature, in order to help children understand themselves and their peers must reflect life, not deny its pervasive problems and challenges. I always write about issues that today's real kids face in their everyday life. If particular readers don't experience the problem portrayed, they surely know someone—perhaps sitting next to them in school, riding their bus or living in their neighborhoods—who does.  

Do loved ones in a child's life die? Unfortunately, yes. Do kids run away? A study in 1999 revealed somewhere near 1.7 million child runaways, qualifying that number as conservative, as many runaways are not reported. A lot more think about it, dream and plan to but never act on the idea. Will reading about it, seeing the danger involved, and noting Kyleah's wish to have stayed home, satisfy the dream or urge to leave home, so that they will not feel the need to experience it for themselves? That is my hope. 

 Do orphans as well as kids taken from abusive homes end up in foster homes. Of course. Are all foster homes perfect? Some foster parents are well intentioned but over burdened and make mistakes as all human beings do. Others are far from ideal. Do children suffer physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the hands of adults? Do adults exploit children for their own pleasure or gain? Absolutely. Children suffer at the hands of adults every single day. And most of them keep it their secret, blaming themselves, feeling shame and helplessness, and think that they are alone in their situation. I dare say that if there are none of these children in your school, you live in a rare idyllic environment. 

Without finding someone to talk to or read about, abused and exploited children will continue to keep silent, cloaked in shame, protecting their perpetrators. Many child therapists will tell you that relating to a fictitious character can help them in many ways. You may find references to such benefits on the web. Here is an example:

"Through books, children learn to cope more constructively with complex emotions like fear and jealousy or stressful experiences like starting school or moving to a new neighborhood."

"By reading about other children and their lives, they take comfort in knowing they are not alone." 

"Books can form a vital springboard for parent-child discussion."

Children who have read my books report that they have helped them in many ways, because the characters are, as they say, "just like me," and  "have the same problems I do." A girl who read Danny's Dragon wrote, "I knew Danny's feelings very well. He acted exactly like I did when I lost my father." A renowned reviewer said that Danny's Dragon should be in every school and library. It isn't of course. Too many teachers and librarians feel they must protect their students from reading about war and death even though thousands of children, like Danny, have lost a parent in war. 

My hope in writing my books is that young readers can realize that their feelings about the situation they are in and the problems they have are valid and to help them release dangerously pent-up emotion without shame; to be able to discuss their problems by being able to relate them to a fictional character; to see that drugs are dangerous and lead only to trouble, to see that sexual exploitation is wrong and not their fault; that it is okay to shun and report the perpetrator, and to protect themselves. In Kyleah's Tree especially, I sought to dispell the "beauty myth," that negatively impacts so many of today's children, even in elementary school; the belief that they must be "beautiful" in order to be loved and accepted. 

Many authors, in the interest of child victims, write beautiful, poignant, and therapeutic fictional accounts of problems that real kids must face. But too often those books are kept from the hands of children by well-meaning adults who believe it will hurt kids to read about the very issues that plague them. "An Inmate's Daughter," a book my company published, is a prime example. 2.5 million children live with the separation, stigma, loneliness, confusion, guilt, shame, and pain of having one or both parents in prison or jail. It is a book that should be in every classroom, and library. Is it?  No, only a small percentage of those who could best benefit from reading this book by compassionate and knowledgeable authors and veteran educator, Jan Walker, have had access to it. I fear that far too many of the books that deal with real life issues are being kept from the eyes and minds of children who need them by well-meaning adults who want to protect them from unpleasant themes, not realizing the kids and their peers are living those themes, and that reading about them could be a great comfort.

By the way, I am looking again at the episode involving the BIA. Your take on it is far from what I intended. I see the Indian policeman as a concerned and caring man with the intention of protecting his jurisdiction from drugs. I still don't see where you found the implication that he was "corrupt with drugs," but I will keep looking for it and make sure that the policeman's intentions are clearly honorable in future editions. 

Today's children are tomorrows adults. They hold the future of the world in their hands. If they are denied a view of the problems that confront their fellow human beings and do not develop a compassion for the downtrodden, the corruption and abuse that goes on today will only continue. 

Thanks for giving me the chance to see my work from your point of view. It has given me pause; a time to reflect on what I am doing and decide whether I want to change my course. I am grateful for criticism, which lends me principles to keep in mind in my future writing. Hearing your viewpoint, although, on the whole, I don't concur with it, will serve to sharpen my sensitivity as I continue to write true-to-life stories. 


Georgina said...

Janet -- I was interested in your response to the librarian. I haven't yet read Kyleah's Tree, but will do so soon. It is important to let children move from the comfy fairytale stories of young children to more informative and challenging (realistic) material. How else can we prepare them for the challenges of life? I ordered An Inmate's Daughter as I leared our church has a summer camp for children with an incarcerated parent. I'll forward the book to the camp coordinator to see if they can use this book.

fayequamheimerl said...

Janet - Great response to the librarian, and I thank you for saying s/he wanted to protect children, because I believe that's true. What's also true is that s/he may have to answer to "parents" who consider discussion of sexual abuse the same as condoning sex. As we both know, sexual abuse is NOT sex. You might find this interesting: In MISS AMERICA BY DAY, written by Marilyn Van Derbur (, Ms. Van Derbur refers to any type of sexual abuse as "violation," a term that works beautifully, I think. All violation causes damage.

So, thanks for insisting on helping children... and adults... learn about uncomfortable topics.