Books for the Dark Times
I recently presented a keynote speech for the Australian Publishing Association. Authors, booksellers and publishers, all in the same room. It was a really special event. I spoke about two VERY diverse subjects – Books In Crisis and Reading for Joy.
This blog is a focus on the former – of which we’re all very acquainted with after the past few years and if you have been following my Children’s Book Daily blog and website for a while now, you may know that my family and I are intimately acquainted with grief.
Despite having close family and a village of people who kept my girls and I afloat, ‘the dark’ is still a journey that is mostly faced alone; no other person can ever comprehend the incredible minutiae of emotions that overwhelms your soul when you lose someone you love.
Along with therapy and surrounding ourselves with our village, books dealing with grief and emotions have been very important to my family, and I believe books of this nature are important for all young people.
What are darker themes in books?
I want to unpack what I mean by books with darker themes, the books I feel fit this category and the concerns parents, caregivers and educators sometimes seem to have with these books. I also want to share why I think it is important for these books to be a) published, b) read by young people (well, all of us really), and c) how they can nurture social and emotional growth. What I hope you take away from reading this newsletter is a confidence to deal with books which are emotionally complex and deal with dark subject matter and have confidence in reading, borrowing and purchasing these books for your children or any family or friends who may need them.
Firstly, what do I mean when I talk of books on ‘the darker themes’? Books which I would put in this category include books on grief, death and dying and other heavy topics such as pandemics, floods, bushfires and other natural disasters, self-harm, climate change, racism, violence and illness. You could add many other topics to this list.
There are of course, more and more books being published which deal with the pandemic, either overtly, or just as an ‘event’ which will timestamp a book as being of this era, such as Emily Gales magnificent new title, ‘The Goodbye Year‘.
With climate change front of mind (or needing to be) and catastrophic flooding across much of our country, books on floods have become particularly topical and perhaps for those directly impacted, poignant.
Adults often have a view that children’s books should be sunshine, lollipops and joy. Over my 20 years of working in school libraries, I have countless examples of parents contacting me to let me know that a book their child borrowed was upsetting or inappropriate and should be removed from the library (for more on dealing with ‘challenged books’ listen to Episode 72 of the Your Kid’s Next Read podcast). The sorts of books I most get concerns about are those on grief, war, self harm, suicide and illness.
Importance of developing resilience
I often ask concerned parents if they read Charlotte’s Web as a child and commonly discover that it was one of their favourite books. Generally the penny drops and there is an ‘ah-ha’ moment as they remember that Charlotte’s inevitable death was made bearable by the way her friends honoured her life and carried on with strength.
I acknowledge that it is our job as parents to protect our children from hurts and heartache where possible, but also talk of the importance of developing resilience to carry children through tough times. I don’t know of a better and more gentle way to introduce young people to ‘the dark’ of life than through age-appropriate, carefully chosen literature – read with an adult, by an adult or with an adult nearby.
Of course, the written word as an art form has depicted the darker side of life since pen was put to paper. War, racial violence, and misogyny are staples in the work of Shakespeare and art, including writing, has always explored every facet of life and the world.
The truth is that life is full of love and of devastation. Good writers help their readers to see that the darker shades of this world can be made bearable by offering hope and showing that there is always light, even just a pinprick of it, in the dark.
Literature works in mysterious and unpredictable ways. Literature has an astonishing capacity to strike emotional chords and resonances and while some books may make us feel uncomfortable, they can be a language for us to express thoughts and feelings about big ideas or explore complex issues such as pandemics, war, homelessness, and grief.
My own experience reading emotionally complex books to all the children in my professional and family life has led me to believe, quite passionately, that children are more able to deal with the light and the dark of life than we give them credit for. Children are curious, they are resilient, they are intrigued by all kinds of stories of the world and books which explore the darkness of life develop empathy and resilience in our children.
And of course, the very best creators of children’s books weave sorrow and heartbreak with love and comfort. They generally don’t (surely never) end a book on a low note or without leaving room for hope.
If we avoid giving our young people books that can lead to difficult conversations or upset the status quo, we may miss some of the most powerful learning opportunities or conversations we never knew we needed to have.
Please note: Obviously, I am not a counsellor. I am a collector of stories. So this newsletter is not therapeutic advice and I am speaking from the perspective of lived experience and as an educator and researcher.