What Would’ve Happened by Barbara O’Connor

There was recently a Twitter #titletalk discussion about resilience literature that brought back a memory.

Many years ago I was visiting fourth graders at a school in Rhode Island. At the time, I only had three published books. The teachers had each chosen one to read to their class prior to my visit.

When I arrived, the principal took me aside and told me that Mrs. M. had originally chosen Me and Rupert Goody to read to her class, but then changed her mind due to content she deemed inappropriate. This didn’t surprise me. The story involves an elderly man who fathered an illegitimate biracial child.

But what did surprise me was what the principal said next: “You know… the child abuse.”


Child abuse?

I was at a complete loss as to what she was referring to.

She went on to point out the following paragraph in the book:

It beats me how come the Good Lord plunked me down in the middle of a family like mine – all wild and unpredictable. My brothers are all the time saying the reason our family is named Helton is cause there’s always a ton of hell going on. Mama slaps them silly when they say that, leaving her red handprint on their cheeks.

I was, quite frankly, dumbfounded to hear that the teacher didn’t want her students to hear that. But I soldiered on, did my presentations and left.

Exactly three weeks later I was at another school, talking to third graders about the writing technique of “show, don’t tell.” One boy seemed to be struggling to understand the technique, so we brainstormed ways to show that a character in a story is mad. I asked the students, “What are some things people do when they are mad?”

That previously struggling boy had a light bulb moment. He got it. He frantically waved his hand. When I called on him, he said (and I’m quoting verbatim here):

“Before she went to therapy, when I splashed water out of the bathtub, my mom got mad and slapped me.”

I was immediately transported back to that Rhode Island school and that class who had not had a chance to hear about that family and those red handprints.

What would have happened if those students had heard that story?

I have felt the sting of a mother’s slap. And I know that I am not alone. Many children have felt the reality of that sting. Should other children know that such things happen, or should they never read about these harsh realities? Should children only read about loving families who would never dream of slapping one another?

I’m guessing that many of those Rhode Island students would have been surprised to know that some mothers slap their children. I think they would be glad they didn’t live in such homes. But perhaps they would have added a notch in their empathy belts. They might have seen the angry girl sitting next to them in a different light. They might have been a little kinder to the dirty-haired boy fidgeting in the back of the classroom.

Obviously, I think that such realities should not be swept under the rug in children’s literature. I think that children who have never had such experiences will be better prepared to face the sometimes harsh realities of life. And children who have had such experiences may find some degree of comfort in knowing they are not alone – and that, like my characters, they can rise above their situations. Resilient.

 Barbara O’Connor is the author of sixteen novels and biographies for children. Drawing on her Carolina roots, Barbara’s novels have a distinctly Southern voice. Her books have received many distinctions, including ALA Notable, NCTE Notables and Parents Choice Gold Awards and have been nominated for young readers’ choice awards in 38 states. You can find her online at http://www.barbaraoconnor.com or on Twitter as @barbaraoconnor.