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Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Sad

6 minute read

Kate DiCamillo is the two-time Newbery award-winning author of Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux and, most recently, Raymie Nightingale.

Earlier this week, the author Matt de la Peña wrote about the importance of including the darker sides of life in stories for children. In it, after recalling a time when an elementary school student asked him what he would ask his favorite authors, he wrote that he would like to pose some questions to one he admires, Kate DiCamillo: “How honest can an author be with an auditorium full of elementary school kids? How honest should we be with our readers? Is the job of the writer for the very young to tell the truth or preserve innocence?” DiCamillo shares her response here.

Dear Matt,

I read Love, and I want you to know that when I turned the page and saw that child hiding under the piano — small, worried, afraid — I felt a wave of recognition. I felt seen. I was a kid who hid under the literal (and metaphorical) piano. I felt isolated by the secrets and fear in my household. For me, as a kid, to see that picture would have been such a relief. I would have known that I was not alone. I would have felt less ashamed.

You asked how honest we, as writers of books for children, should be with our readers, whether it is our job to tell them the truth or preserve their innocence.

Here’s a question for you: Have you ever asked an auditorium full of kids if they know and love Charlotte’s Web? In my experience, almost all of the hands go up. And if you ask them how many of them cried when they read it, most of those hands unabashedly stay aloft.

My childhood best friend read Charlotte’s Web over and over again as a kid. She would read the last page, turn the book over, and begin again. A few years ago, I asked her why.

“What was it that made you read and reread that book?” I asked her. “Did you think that if you read it again, things would turn out differently, better? That Charlotte wouldn’t die?”

“No,” she said. “It wasn’t that. I kept reading it not because I wanted it to turn out differently or thought that it would turn out differently, but because I knew for a fact that it wasn’t going to turn out differently. I knew that a terrible thing was going to happen, and I also knew that it was going to be okay somehow. I thought that I couldn’t bear it, but then when I read it again, it was all so beautiful. And I found out that I could bear it. That was what the story told me. That was what I needed to hear. That I could bear it somehow.”

So that’s the question, I guess, for you and for me and for all of us trying to do this sacred task of telling stories for the young: How do we tell the truth and make that truth bearable?

When I talk to kids in schools, I tell them about how I became a writer. I talk about myself as a child and how my father left the family when I was very young. Four years ago, I was in South Dakota, in this massive auditorium, talking to 900 kids, and I did what I always do: I told them about being sick all the time as a kid and about my father leaving. And then I talked to them about wanting to write. I talked to them about persisting.

During the Q&A, a boy asked me if I thought I would have been a writer if I hadn’t been sick all the time as a kid and if my father hadn’t left. And I said something along the lines of “I think there is a very good chance that I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today if those things hadn’t happened to me.” Later, a girl raised her hand and said, “It turns out that in the end you were stronger than you thought you were.”

When the kids left the auditorium, I stood at the door and talked with them as they walked past. One boy — skinny-legged and blond-haired — grabbed my hand and said, “I’m here in South Dakota and my dad is in California.” He flung his free hand out in the direction of California. He said, “He’s there and I’m here with my mom. And I thought I might not be okay. But you said today that you’re okay. And so I think that I will be okay, too.”

What could I do?

I tried not to cry. I kept hold of his hand.

I looked him in the eye.

I said, “You will be okay. You are okay. It’s just like that other kid said: you’re stronger than you know.”

I felt so connected to that child.

I think we both felt seen.

My favorite lines of Charlotte’s Web, the lines that always make me cry, are toward the end of the book. They go like this: “These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…”

I have tried for a long time to figure out how E. B. White did what he did, how he told the truth and made it bearable.

And I think that you, with your beautiful book about love, won’t be surprised to learn that the only answer I could come up with was love. E. B. White loved the world. And in loving the world, he told the truth about it — its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we were not alone.

I think our job is to trust our readers.

I think our job is to see and to let ourselves be seen.

I think our job is to love the world.



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