“Really Touched Me”

Very Little PrincessLast week I talked about an e-mail from a student. Here is one I just received from another reader:

 Dear Mrs. Bauer,

 My name is Mia and I am 8 years old. I am home schooled. I found one of your

 books at the library called The Very Little Princess and I loved it. When I was

 reading the story, I wanted to go into the story. The very last lines really

 touched me. I really hope to find other books you have written.

Maia’s response is particularly interesting given the nature of The Very Little Princess. I’ve had some rather angry letters from adults concerning that book, caring, responsible adults who felt betrayed by it. They found it entirely unacceptable that the story involves a mother who goes off and leaves her young daughter with a grandmother the girl has never met. Or that it centers around an arrogant doll who comes to life only to be faced with her own mortality. What kinds of topics are these for a pink-jacketed princess story? What kinds of topics are they for little girls, whatever the book jacket portrays?

It’s the old question, of course. To what extent do we need to protect our children from emotionally challenging material? Note, we’re not talking about pornography here, either the pornography of misappropriated sex or the pornography of violence. Rather we’re talking about a story that recognizes pain in another, the pain of having a mother who isn’t stable enough to continue being a mother, the pain of acknowledging that the joy of living in this sensory world is coupled, always, with the knowledge that our lives will end.

It is of particular interest to me that Maia responded to the last lines of the book. Here are those lines: 

“Does being made of blood and bones mean that I will die?” Regina asked suddenly one bright blue morning.

. . . “Not today, I think,” [Zoey’s grandmother] said.

So Zoey and Princess Regina have learned to live with that. Not today. Not today for dying or for Zoey’s mother coming back, either.

But today for waking, for being delighted to see one another, for dipping a corner of toast—or a crumb—into the runny yolk of a fried egg.

For smelling the good, dark smell of the earth.

Today for making up games in the throne room, too.

. . .  Together they have learned that today, every day, is a day to be brave in, a day to be alive in . . . a day to love in.

And if a few tears fall? Well, a good friend can always be counted on to wipe them away.

Isn’t that so?

I wonder, as I so often have before, who it is we are protecting when we ask that stories for children be swept clean of pain.

Clearly Maia got precisely what this difficult story is about . . . and it touched her!

Another child might have been put off by it. I acknowledge that. But because that is so, should the book have been withheld from those who would be touched, who would, perhaps, even grow a bit larger emotionally for accompanying this story journey? 

Another child who picked this book up in the library as Maia did, a child who didn’t want to feel what the story calls forth, would, most likely, have put it down very early on. And that’s as it should be.

The primary time where care should be taken is when a book has a captive audience, when a teacher or librarian (or a parent, for that matter) reads to children who have no choice but to listen.

The power of reading is the power of choice . . . for all of us. Out of nearly endless possibilities we choose the experience we want to have, the information we want to glean. The same choices must be available to young readers. 

And thankfully, in this society anyway, they usually are.

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