Books Help Young Readers Cope

Kids today face tougher issues than past generations. A family torn apart by divorce. The death of a parent. A sibling commits suicide. A mother abandons her child. Gang warfare rips through a neighborhood. A family is suddenly homeless. A parent goes to jail. Unfortunately these are just some of the all-too-real concerns of young people today. Throughout their life children will come face-to-face with challenges they have to overcome, adapt or ignore. Adults often have the luxury of life experiences to help them through the tough times in life. Kids need to find other ways to learn how to cope with and move beyond the same challenges.
Many of them turn to books.
“Books help children deal with tough topics by letting them know they are not alone,” explains Frances Foster, Publisher of Frances Foster Books for Young Readers at Farrar, Straus & Giroux .
“There are other families like theirs, other kids with problems that can be met and lived with if not always solved. A book gives a reader space to think about these problems. Story provides a framework and characters with whom a reader can identify, if he/she chooses to. Through story, a reader gets some perspective and time to reflect.”
Karen Wojtyla, Senior Editor for Margaret K. McElderry Books Simon and Schuster Children’s Books agrees. “Books can validate the experiences and emotions kids are going through and tell them they really aren’t crazy, other kids have felt these things and it will all be all right in the end. I think they can also help kids who aren’t going through these experiences to empathize with others having these problems.”
Some kids will be shuffled off to therapy and counseling when crisis hits but children’s author Dandi Daley Mackall explains that, “Books hit where therapy doesn’t: Books show, rather than tell. Like it or not, books are one place kids see what they think are norms. In fiction that shows normal kids who have special needs or illnesses or less-than-perfect families, readers with similar circumstances get to watch and have the feeling they’re not alone with this problem. One of the most meaningful fan letters I ever got was from an 8-year-old girl who had read Winnie the Horse Gentler, my series about a teenaged horse whisperer whose mother died before the series starts. This reader addressed her letter to Winnie and said, ‘I know how you feel. My mom died two years ago.’”
Author Cynthia Leitich Smith runs a large children’s literature resource site, and receives many questions from people looking for books that could illuminate some personal issue for an individual reader/classroom. She states that stories, whether fiction or fact, must be compelling in their own right.
“But,” she says, “as a secondary benefit, if the young reader gains comfort, catharsis, or awareness of some personal dynamic, that’s certainly welcome. Not all readers will want to immerse themselves in books connected to troubles in their own lives. Some will prefer to escape through their reading, and that’s okay. Likewise, some may want to escape at first, but then, in a less intense moment, benefit greatly from a book that seems to speak directly to them.”
She continues, “I’m not a big fan of books that are designed only to address an issue. I much prefer those where it is a thematic undertone, bolstered by strong characters and an engaging plot. However, those single-minded books do often provide a bridge to open discussion. Offer words when words can be hard to find–with language and an approach that’s child friendly. In general, for young people to see characters or real-life subjects like themselves makes them feel validated, less alone, and more part of the community of readers. In reading about these heroes, they may begin to find the heroes within themselves.”
Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, a book or a short story, reading offers hope; a lifeline to some kids and a chance to escape to others. The comfort and/or knowledge that comes with the ability to identify with a character they are reading about varies from child to child and story to story.
“Stories help by allowing a kid to recognize her or himself within the confines of the storyline,” explains Rosanne Tolin, Managing Editor of Guideposts for Kids.
“There is comfort in seeing that you are not the only one with a certain problem,” adds Marileta Robinson, Senior Editor at Highlights Magazine. “And seeing how someone else attempts to cope with that problem can give you hope, as well as ideas that you can try in your own life, ideas you might resist if someone in authority told them to you. For example, in Riding the Whale by Liz Gallagher, (April 04) a young girl is thinking about how much she dreads moving to the city. We follow her thoughts as she realizes that new experiences can be exciting.”
Adds Sister Maria Grace Dateno, Editor, My Friend, The Catholic Magazine for Kids, “Books and stories in magazines can help kids deal with a tough issue by letting them see another kid dealing with it successfully, even while having similar feelings and difficulties. While not necessarily bringing a solution to a young person’s problems, books and stories on tough topics can bring hope and encouragement.”
According to Bernette Ford, CEO of Color-Bridge Books, LLC, “Books can open doors to additional help for a reader to make their way through a crisis. “I think young kids can be prompted to discuss difficult issues with a caring adult after reading a story that deals with the issues. For older children, books and stories can help them to see they are not alone, as well as seeing how other kids deal with those issues.”
One of the biggest challenges of writing about tough topics for the young reader is being real enough to engage the reader but not so real to scare them away.
Ford explains, “Writers have to remember: don’t talk down to kids; don’t preach; be true/not idealistic; don’t over-simplify but also don’t overwhelm with too much information.”
Continuing the explanation, Robinson adds, “At Highlights, we must keep in mind our audience’s wide age-range. Writing about drug use or sex or incarceration would not work for us. Even less age-related topics can be tricky. How do you write about living through a natural disaster without creating fear in young readers? The emphasis needs do be on what the characters do, not on sensationalizing the frightening details of the event. In Tornado Coming by Dick Donley (July 2002) we showed a young boy taking brave but common sense measures to save his elderly neighbor during a tornado.”
It’s a challenge, says Roslin, to, “Make the topic relevant to their lives, without preaching.”
And, adds Wojtyla, “to do it without condescension and sentimentality. Make it real. “
Good writing is good writing, reminds, Mary Cash, Executive Editor at Holiday House. “I look for the same qualities in stories dealing with difficult topics as I do in any manuscript. However, getting the emotional tone correct is crucial to making a story of this type work. Particular care needs to be taken to make the characters sympathetic as well. The story absolutely must avoid sentimentality and didacticism.”
As always, it’s important for the writer to know their market and match their particular story to the correct avenue. Sister Maria Grace Dateno highlights a common situation for her. “One challenge I have in selecting stories or articles that deal with tough topics is the fact that, while there are many kids dealing with a particular issue, there are also many kids who aren’t. Magazine stories and articles, even more than books (which are more likely to be read by those they are intended for), need to be sensitive to all readers, and to try to not create worries where there were none. Also, a magazine story is so short. My Friend, The Catholic Magazine for Kids is for kids ages 7 to 12. At this age, readers still need some kind of closure at the end of the story. It is a challenge for a writer to deal with an issue in less than 1200 words and not leave too many open-ended questions. “
What about the very young reader, the picture book audience? How effective are stories as a coping mechanism for this age and what is the best way for a writer to approach writing about a difficult issue for this group?
Foster says, “With younger children who are being read to, the picture book audience, I think much of the value of such books is that they give adults a way to talk about issues. The picture book story opens up a dialogue between the reader and listener.”
One suggestion from Tolin is to, “Talk to other kids about that issue first, to find out what they really think about it. “
Adds Cash, “I think that finding the right approach, one that has the correct emotional tone and that offers either a fresh perspective or shows the issue in a new light is the key to success in this type of writing. These are things that a writer would need to discover. “
Often the answer comes from within the writer.
“I think writers need to draw on personal emotions,” encourages, Robinson. “Even if they haven’t been in exactly that situation, they can draw on similar feelings. Without that emotional connection, the story may feel formulaic. But less is more. Implying feelings can be more powerful than spelling them out. Several years ago (10/93) we published a story called The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston. It dealt with the aftermath of war, but the story focused on an olive tree from which two neighbors formerly shared the fruit. After the war, they have to learn to share again. A lot was shown by the gift of olives from one neighbor to the other that didn’t have to be said.”
Robinson also cautions writers to pay attention to their intended reader. She cites a common problem as, “Trying too hard to teach a lesson rather than tell a story and writing about problems that are beyond the scope of the audience as common mistakes she sees in this type of story.
I think this is especially true when writing for younger readers, 3-7. It’s easy to implant fear in children who have not had the experience. The story needs to be told in a context the reader can identify with. For example, we have a story coming up in Sept 05 (Training Wheels by Donna Freedman) about a boy missing his father after a divorce. The story focuses on the boy’s wishing his father was there to take the training wheels off his bike, and realizing he can show his father his new bike-riding skill the next time he sees him.”
Cash stresses that stories, “Should not be condescending, saccharine, or maudlin.” She also points out that, “I have seen issue-related books that depend on the issue itself to carry the book. The quality of the story, writing, art, and entire package need to carry the book.”
Wojtyla agrees that writers need to remember they are telling a story and not, “Let the issue take over the story to the point that the book becomes a lecture about the problem or about how to cope with the problem or both. You still need a plot and real, vibrant characters to interest readers. Otherwise it’s a textbook article fleshed out.”
“A pet peeve of mine,” she adds, “is writers who sentimentalize and gloss over the tough stuff in an apparent attempt to write a long version of a Hallmark Card. Things like illness and death don’t consist of vague impressions of pill bottles and loving deathbed farewells. They are often long and messy and turbulent and can involve ugly emotions like jealousy and anger that can leave huge guilt scars on kids–and adults. No one should pretend they are made of clouds and angel dust and sunsets.”
Sometimes books make connections in the only way it is possible to reach a child. Smith explains, “I was raised in lower middle class mid America, where therapy is uncommon and, for the most part, financially inaccessible. Talking about one’s feelings isn’t particularly encouraged either, especially for boys. In such communities, books may be the only outside venue for a young reader to really think through what he/she is experiencing.”
So what’s a writer to do? Write the stories you feel called to write.
Author Elaine Marie Alphin says, “I’ve heard from a number of teachers that both Ghost Soldier and Ghost Cadet help kids cope with single-parent families and re-forming families (parents marrying post-divorce). Recently, teachers have also been commenting that A Bear For Miguel helps younger children understand how children can be loved and kept safe by their families even during war – I think that has worried children more since 9/11.”
“These books weren’t published or intended to be used to help kids cope, but just to be good books. I suspect that most good books work on different levels to serve more than one purpose.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.