March 17, 2015

In Defense of Sad Books

This week is my Spring Break. Of course, I have many projects waiting to be accomplished, but no motivation to do them. I am, however, spending a lot of time reading. Does anyone else ever get upset about how little time the average adult gets to spend reading? I have to literally force myself to stop working/worrying about work/zoning out in front of the tv throughout the week and go to bed early enough to read. And it really doesn't happen as often as it should. I was one of those kids who loved reading growing up...so it makes sense that I seek it out at least a little as an adult. 
What about our kids we have today who we practically have to beg to read a chapter book to the end? My guess is they grow up to be those adults we all know who never pick up a book. They don't make the time to read to their children. And the cycle continues. And future teachers will still be writing blog posts like this one...but, I digress.

I just finished reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. I know...I'm late to the party with this one. I've been hearing about it for a very long time. But, you know. Life. I didn't get around to reading it until last week. (A sweet student bought it for me from the book fair!)

Amazon.com
Oh my gosh, this book! If you've read it, you get it. The book is just magical. Do you remember the first time you read, or heard, Charlotte's Web? This will make you feel a lot like that. What makes it especially good, and what I'm convinced makes all good books good, is it has elements of tragedy and sadness followed by real hope.
I mean, why do we still talk about Charlotte's Web? Because Charlotte taught us what it means to be a great friend. And then she died. Yes, death in a kid's book. I had never felt sad about someone or something dying before Charlotte. But I can assure you I learned from it. 
Finishing this book made me wonder why I love that so much. What in our nature makes us hold the books that make us cry closest to our hearts? For example: if Dumbledore dies in the 6th Harry Potter book, why is that my favorite? And then I read Katherine Applegate's Newbery Award acceptance speech in the back of the book. 
She talks about how a book store had contacted her about an elementary school visit she was preparing to do. A mom was concerned that The One and Only Ivan would make the kids at the school feel sad. Applegate points out that, yes, the book will make your children feel sad. This is a good thing. 
Our students are dealing with sad things all of the time. And our grown-up job, as teachers, parents, care-givers, is to give them the tools to cope with this sadness. Nothing is better for that than a good story. How many of you know a student who cannot afford breakfast? Or has a broken home? Or has lost a family member? Or even a pet? I was 23 when we had to put our cat down. We had gotten her when I was 6. That same year I read Each Little Bird that Sings by Deborah Wiles for a children's lit class. I won't spoil anything for you if you've never read it...but that book holds some major therapy for anyone grieving the loss of anyone. And it really helped me. I let my 4th graders borrow it every time one of them loses a family member or pet. 
I think where I want this post to get to is here: Life can be sad, but you have to keep hope. Children's authors have written hundreds of beautiful stories where sad things happen but the characters keep going. Adults don't always process sad events the same way that kids do. A talking animal may be the exact medium that a child needs to cope. 
I have watched our school librarian pull way too many books off of the shelves this year. Almost always at the request of an adult who hasn't read the book. But what are we afraid of kids being exposed to? A character who makes a poor choice but learns a lesson? Evil existing but being conquered by good? 
Our job is to create lifelong readers. This is most likely to happen when children have actual free choice of what they are reading. This includes sad books. Books where characters die, parents get divorced, people don't have enough money to pay bills, people leave and don't come back, etc. 
Books that mirror real life.

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