Sunday, July 18, 2004

Is there too much non-fiction in children's fiction?

There's an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times today about the extreme seriousness of so much of the required summer reading our kids are being assigned. And I'll admit, it's something I've been wondering about too, since for two years now my daughter's summer reading book has been about dealing with death. Not exactly beach reads here.

The author of the piece, Barbara Feinberg, writes:
"Here are some novels assigned this summer to American sixth-graders, all winners of the highest literary prizes: 'Walk Two Moons,' by Sharon Creech, chronicles a daughter's search for her missing mother, who fled, it turns out, because of a deep depression after a miscarriage and subsequent hysterectomy. At the end, the girl discovers that her mother was killed in a bus accident. In 'Belle Prater's Boy,' by Ruth White, a missing father is found to have died because he shot himself in the face; Belle Prater, the errant mother, is never found, although her son remembers her saying that she's in a straitjacket: 'Squeezed to death. I can't move. I can't breathe. I have to get out of here.' A far gentler book, 'Because of Winn-Dixie,' by Kate DiCamillo, is about a girl who finds a friendly dog who in turn helps her rebuild her life. But she must do that because her mother abandoned her; we are told also that the mother 'loved to drink.'"
And she's got a point; this is heavy, heavy stuff. On the other hand, "Because of Winn-Dixie" is a book I love dearly, and the way the girl's relationship with her father evolves as they both come to terms with the loss of her mother was more heart-warming than -chilling. Is "Sarah, Plain and Tall" a downer because the only reason the family needs Sarah is because they lost their mother? Is the "Shiloh" trilogy unnecessarily traumatic because the figure of Judd, a violent alcoholic who abuses dogs and was himself abused as a child, looms over it so menacingly? Maybe. Maybe not. But I do know that my son has felt more strongly about Shiloh than about any number of less threatening books we've passed his way.

I'm not sure that I buy this as something new in children's literature, either, a menacing sign that adults who should be protecting children are forcing them to face life's hardships instead. The books I remember most clearly from my childhood weren't exactly carefree: "Island of the Blue Dolphins" and "A Little Princess" are certainly books that smacked their young protagonists with harsh realities. I recently took a look at "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," a book I remember loving as a kid, and was reminded that it was about a girl who felt so neglected and ignored by her family that she ran away. That's a plot that would be pretty much at home in today's social-studies kid novels (which is probably why, come to think of it, it's still on reading lists).

It's nice to suppose that there was an easygoing time when children were only exposed to things that were innocent and enchanted and life-affirming and freed from the grittiness that may or may not constitute real adult life. But I don't know; am I the only kid who felt permanently scarred by the death of Bambi's mother? Or who still can't watch "The Wizard of Oz" after feeling so frightened as a child for Dorothy, stranded so far from home? A good scare has long been considered an acceptable part of children's entertainment. Maybe it's just that these days, the stuff of "real life" is scarier than any flying monkey.

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