October 23, 2004

The Ethics of Children's Literature

Next on my reading list: Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up.

Today on NPR, Barbara Feinberg discussed what she views as a disturbing trend in current children's literature. She explains her position that children's books have become increasingly gloomy and depressing, with a tendency of showing children as unempowered victims of an dreary world in which adults' miseries prevent children from developing their own sense of competence. They are generally shown as facing these challenges alone. She points out numerous examples from award-winning books that focus on topics such as alcoholism, sexual abuse, abandonment and suicide.

As Feinberg stated earlier this fall during an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, "Instead of trying to imagine what young people should be hearing from an adult point of view, just take a couple steps back and be more observant and respectful of children whose actual childhoods are unfolding right before us. We need to be more humble."

Many people would disagree with Ms. Feinberg's conclusion that current literature is frequently harmful to children. She herself acknowledges that the underlying reason for this trend is well-intentioned, though ultimately flawed: she posits that the current trend has arisen from the 1960's societal emphasis on showing the truth, no matter how ugly, rather than glossing it over for comfort's sake. However, she does not disagree with the need to teach children about the trials and tribulations of real life. She points out that traditional literature also deals with societal and personal issues such as death and abandonment. The difference, Ms. Feinberg seems to say, is that traditional literature shows the child protagonist as an individual who can create change in his life and who gains positive lessons from each upset.

Whichever side of the debate you fall on, Ms. Feinberg's comments lead me to an important question: ethically, what version of reality are we obligated to show to our children? At what point do we decide that something is too harsh for them? Alternately, how much harshness do they need to see in order to develop coping skills that they will need in life? In literature, as much as in any other form of input, we provide cues as to what children can expect from the world. This is a heavy onus on parents and caregivers because young children do not have the experience and objectivity to see the effects that our messages will have on them. Do we shield them from anything that might upset them and thereby stunt their nascent coping skills? Or do we allow them access to anything that they may want to read and trust their ability to assimilate it? Finally, if we notice that educators are only providing our children with one type of literature, to what extent is it incumbent upon us to show them alternative types of literature?

Who would have thought that a family trip to the library would raise so many concerns?


Blogger Knitting Painter Woman shared an opinion...

You COULD get me started. (Children's librarian for 15 years.) Avid reader whose childhood sanity probably was saved by reading. Some children have ugly, real lives. They "deserve" and need reading material that lightens their pain, and/or teaches them how others have coped and/or inspires them to invent a new way of coping and/or helps them escape the pain temporarily and/or shows them that it cold be worse. And those children also deserve adults around them who know literature (not "just" kiddielit) well enough to encourage a good selection at the right time.
In my view, it is parents' narrow-mindedness that causes the problems. Children (like you and the premature reading of the slasher novel) discover their limits!

5:23 pm  

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