Children's Books in the Age of He Who Shall Not Be Named
In the wake US presidential election, and with populist movements sweeping the western hemisphere, it seems as though we are on the doorstep of dark days indeed. It is tempting to surrender to that darkness. As a writer, it’s difficult not to give into the idea that my words, after all is said and done, are insignificant in the face of the ignorance, fear and bigotry that are increasingly infiltrating our mainstream culture.
But recent events tell us precisely the opposite, for Mr. Trump’s campaign certainly was not built upon a foundation of facts. It was constructed of grandiose promises that tapped into a vein of deep discontent, and from poisonous falsehoods that stoked irrational fears about the changing face of the nation.
What chance did reality have against such rhetoric?
Words are how we got into this mess. And I think words provide us with a way out of it.
Of course, in an age where we feel more divided than ever before and in which so much of our discourse plays out on social media, this claim sounds dubious. But I’m not talking here of trying to get your aunt Linda to acknowledge the dangers of demagoguery through a carefully composed tweet.
I’m talking about children’s books.
Since their eighteenth-century beginnings (John Newbery’s 1744 A Pretty Little Pocketbook is widely considered to be most significant origin point of modern western children’s literature), children’s books have traditionally been used as tools to indoctrinate children into accepting the reigning social, moral and religious norms of the day. And, though we’ve come a long way from moral and martyr tales, many scholars would argue that this is still the primary purpose of children's literature.
But while early children’s books were written in order to preserve the status quo, we must now ensure that we write and distribute books that give children the tools to push past it. Because today, the status quo means turning on the television to hear sound bites from the next leader of the free world demeaning and asserting his right to sexually assault women, vilifying immigrants and Muslims, mocking the disabled, and denying climate change. (And we are already seeing the toll this deeply troubled worldview is taking on young people: a New York Times study estimates that Mr. Trump has affected how nearly half of teenage girls in the US perceive their own bodies.)
Fictional places and characters can open a child reader’s eyes to new ways of seeing and understanding the world. In showing us how things could be rather than how things are, books give children tools to identify problems in their societies and model how to fight against injustices. It comes as no surprise that Harry Potter readers, who followed the rise, reign, and eventual defeat of an intolerant demagogue—some of them over the course of many years—are less likely than other voters to favor Trump.
Perhaps even more importantly, scientific studies have recently confirmed what readers and literary scholars have always known: reading—and particularly literary reading as opposed to, say, reading mass-market fiction—also makes us more empathic people. (No small wonder, then, that Mr. Trump is not a reader.) The essential job of the fiction reader is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, so it makes sense that those who practice this skill as children are better at it as adults.
Literary reading also provides children with an early chance to develop critical thinking skills and to learn to identify biases and ideologies held by characters, narrators, and even authors. Reading and studying texts that leave gaps for the reader to fill in can challenge children to see narratives as subjective and open to interpretation, rather than as having an assigned meaning. This ability to interact critically, rather than passively, with a text or narrative is essential in our current climate, in which the lines between journalism and propaganda are ever more blurred.
And for children who have been left feeling frightened and powerless, books provide hope, escape and fictional agency. (Perhaps that’s why so many disillusioned voters turned, in the wake of the election, to reading.) Neil Gaiman tells a story of his cousin, a Polish holocaust survivor, who risked her life in order to read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and share the story with her friends. When asked why she would risk her life for a story, she replied: “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto—they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.”
So I call on my fellow children’s authors today not to lose hope in the power of their words. We need you now, more than ever, to imagine new worlds and characters that show us the way to a better status quo. Write stories that help us see one another’s humanity, that teach us compassion, that model hope and agency, and that undermine the rhetoric of prejudice and oppression that has infected our society. Write narratives that leave room for reader interrogation. Write naughty characters who question adult authority and establishments, and not only the overtly villainous ones. You speak directly to the future, which means you have a huge advantage in this fight. Use it.
I call on parents, educators and librarians today to work harder than ever to make literary reading a centerpiece of childhood. We don’t see the same returns in empathy or critical thinking from children who grow up glued to screens, nor from children who are only exposed to commercial texts. Fill our libraries and schools with diverse books that subvert, rather than reinforce the status quo (books like these). Stand up for banned books, which are nearly always challenged for their subversive potential. Help to deprogram children from the testing mindset that tells them that answers are to be found in someone else’s wisdom, rather than constructed from their own.
I call on all of us to fight for local libraries and literacy programs to remain open and well funded so that more children have access to stories. I call on us to model—and perhaps rediscover—the power of reading for children by reading more ourselves.
Last week, across the US and indeed across the globe, adults struggled to figure out how to respond to children who asked them what was happening in the world and why. And I suspect that, in the coming months and years, many of us will find ourselves facing this dilemma again. My suggestion? Give them a book.