Thursday, August 30, 2007


Over on the child_lit listserv (you have to subscribe to read it) there has been a goodly amount of discussion about trauma arising from books dealing with death, violence and so on. I’ve always been of the opinion that children can pretty much handle anything they read and that they self-censor. I know certainly that there are many aspects of books I read as a child that I just did not notice at all, but that are glaringly obvious to an adult reader. Things like sex, violence and a kind of underlying pessimism or even nastiness that can be present in some stories.

I think I had this view because my life had pretty much been trauma-free. Oh, I’ve experienced grief and misery, but I’d never had an experience that left the film of the horror running through my mind at unattended moments. I’d never had that sense of carrying around the fear, grief, anxiety and not knowing what to do of the actual horrifying event itself, as if it was still happening every second.

Knowing how reading something in a book (or a newspaper, or a blog) can bring back those feelings as immediately as if they were still happening is something rather different from experiencing the almost-delicious second-hand sorrow in a book. Having read Bridge to Terabithia as a child helped me to deal with the first loss of a friend at sixteen, but now every story about a sick child is about my child. Very few books manage to convey the helplessness, the rage and the bodily reality of watching your child struggle for life. But now my mind provides the accompanying track, and it’s hard to escape it.

Going on twelve months after the Incident these episodes are diminishing. The intensity of the emotions is slipping back into something more appropriate to the past, and the feeling of being thrown back into the situation happens less often. But it’s still there, waiting. I can’t know what my son goes through, but I know his nightmares have been intense and frequent, although they are becoming less so now. And I know that even his imaginary nemesis, Numbers Man, has not been very helpful in dealing with his anger and sadness.

None of this convinces me that censoring books for children is a good idea. No other person can ever understand another’s trauma entirely. But it does make me very wary of benign offers of bibliotherapy for children. Perhaps the child sees this as an attempt to drown them in their experiences. Perhaps it seems like punishment for something done wrong. I know the Noodle feels that he became ill because of something he did wrong, while I know that even the most evil person would not deserve what he went through.


Me: Before I Die by Jenny Downham. The story is about a teenage girl dying of Leukemia. But before you think ‘sickly sentimental’ or ‘depressing’ let me say that it’s one of the best books about being a teenager, falling in love, dealing with conflicting expectations from family, having a younger brother, dealing with a complicated best friend and basically being alive that I’ve ever read. Plus it made me cry buckets, even more than the manipulative scene in The Last Battle where the bear dies, which makes me weep even as I feel sick.

The Noodle: Pocket Dogs. Yes, it’s about dogs in pockets. Nice.

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