I have a special place in my heart for adolescent literature. Harry Potter and Anne Shirley battle for the top of my list of favorite stories. And I believe that what impresses me the most is the depth with which these, and other stories like them, can be written. Not simply because the authors want to include tones and themes that adults will appreciate as well, but because I think the authors believe that such deep themes are ones that children are equally capable of perceiving and understanding, even if it’s in a different way.
We don’t give kids enough credit. We talk in hushed tones about serious adult matters so they won’t hear us and ask questions since such big talk will be too much to understand. When they do ask, and we respond with that condescending smile and that nothing, sweetheart, everything’s okay, go back to bed, they turn away with a crushed spirit because, guess what, they don’t believe you. And while they may not have the vocabulary to articulate this or the developed emotional intelligence to understand this, they are crushed because they know they have been lied to and that mommy or daddy doesn’t trust them with the truth. Of course, we as adults know it is not a matter of trust, but one of protection.
My feelings will likely change when I become a mother myself, but right now, I don’t see the value of protecting children from the harshness of the world. I don’t think that means we should expose them to violent movies before they can speak or that we should explain the birds and the bees while they’re still in preschool (as I’m sure many parents have unfortunately endured the embarrassing announcement by their kids of BOYS HAVE A PENIS AND GIRLS HAVE A VAGINA), but what I do believe is what my mother once told me, and that is if your child is old enough to ask the question, she’s old enough to understand the answer. Now, when you’re my mother and your child is asking questions constantly about why can’t I touch the clouds and why is it cold on the first day of spring and will it rain in three weeks and why don’t you know, you have to treat that truth carefully. We live in a weird paradox of a time where adulthood is reached later and later with each generation and where information can be grasped by people younger and younger with each new iPhone version that makes the equally capable one cheaper and therefore acceptable for parents to pass down to their toddlers. My boomerang generation is smarter than their parents but far less experienced than they were at our age. And to try to cover the whys and hows is far too complex for a lowly blogger such as myself, but what I’m trying to get at here, though I digress, is that children need to hear the truth. My peers were raised in classrooms where everyone was special and got a trophy for existing and got everything they wanted, and then we graduated college into a recession caused by the two wars of our childhoods and by the overspending of our nation to give us a good and safe suburban upbringing because the world before us was terrible and full of strife and animosity and by spending more to amass things so our children will be comfortable will surely prevent such terrors from returning.
But if we had the truth . . . that life is messy and bad things happen to pretty people and there is little more valuable than lessons that are only gained through hard work and that guess what, mom and dad can’t protect you from everything, I wonder if it would be any different for us.
There is no way to know, of course, and there is far more playing into our generation’s woes than just that, far more that include things beyond anyone’s control, ours or our parents.
But I’ve just always believed in the truth.
When JK Rowling discussed the death of her mother, she says her regret is that she didn’t fight her father when he requested that no one see her dead. “I, mistakenly, as I look back, I agreed not to, and I really, deeply regret that. I really, really, really wish I’d seen her. It didn’t matter what she’d looked like, it would have made it easier. Because I do believe that the truth, which is another theme in the books, and certainly stems from my own past, I think that the truth is always easier than a lie or an evasion.”
And this is why J.K. Rowling wins.
Many have said her books are too dark for children. Too much evil, too much death, too much horror. But the art of storytelling is to reveal the real world through words. There is no such thing as true fiction, as every story, every piece, reflects the life of the creator, reflects the world of the creator. Harry’s world is full of violence and sorrow and pain, but so is ours. I don’t want to protect my children from the world, I want to show them the world for what it is, guiding them by my hand and leaving it open for when they wish to grasp it again. I can’t protect you from the world, but I can be here when you want a break from it. That’s all I can do. But I want to offer the truth. I want my girls to know that, yes, it is a possibility you will get attacked or raped because of your gender, but I want to teach my boys that all human life is precious and should be treated with care and dignity. I want to teach my kids that because human bodies are precious, romance should be delicately approached, but I want them to know I will help them out regardless of their life choices for the sake of their well-being. The truth is what our children need, and then maybe the rude awareness of the real world – that we are all bound to encounter as we leave adolescence – will be slightly less traumatizing if we weren’t led to believe that only bright horizons awaited us.
Anne was orphaned, wanted by no one, and when she was finally taken in by those who would love her most, she lost dear Matthew, in the first book that was written for those who were Anne’s age, 11, 12, 13. Three books later, she loses one of her childhood friends. Two books after that, she loses her first child. And in the last installment of the series, she loses her second son to war and her oldest returns injured. But Lucy Maud Montgomery exposes us to these sharp events with a beauty that is unparalleled in anything else I’ve read before. Why, we may ask, could she just not write a pleasant life story for our little girls to read? Because there are too many little girls who don’t get the pleasant life stories. But like Anne, they stubbornly look ahead for only the best things and expect nothing less. And because of such hard work and no assumptions for entitlement, they learn the strength to create a world better than the one they found.
Harry and Anne both find themselves at the end of their narratives in secure families with their wars behind them but forever maimed by what has been lost. There are some things you can never come back from, and perhaps what children need to know is that that’s okay. There are some wounds that will scar for life, but there is a way to move on beyond that and to honor those scars with your living. And this is why I can approve of children’s literature even if it included the truth of a world that can be so grotesque at times.