What Good Does It Do To Break A Child’s Heart? by Jo Knowles
The first book that broke my heart was The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. In it, a child’s parents take away his beloved stuffed rabbit when he gets ill, for fear it carries disease. I sobbed for that rabbit, suddenly all alone in the world. I sobbed over the unfairness of it all.
“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” [Williams, p. 13]
I clung to my own stuffed bear and promised I’d never let him suffer the same fate as that poor rabbit. He went everywhere with me: Restaurants, the grocery store, my aunt and uncle’s wedding—even the bathroom.
Some might say that book was a little too much for me. And maybe they were a little right. But it gave me my first powerful experience with empathy. I sobbed for someone else’s pain and loss—the rabbit’s—not my own. And while the book gave me my first experience of heartbreak, it was through that hurt that I discovered my own capacity for love.
So many books of my childhood seemed to break my heart. When Charlotte dies in Charolotte’s Web, I was overwhelmed with worry for Wilbur and what he’d do without her. I was never ready when a character suffered. Not when Jess loses his best friend, Leslie, in Bridge To Terrabithia, or when Meg loses Molly in A Summer to Die, or when Kate loses Joss in Beat the Turtle Drum.
Best friends, siblings—children—are not supposed to die. But sometimes they do.
When I was in nursery school one of the little girls in my class drowned in her backyard pond. I used to look at our class picture and touch her face behind the plastic wrap in the photo album my mother kept the picture in. In those early years, death was a sad mystery to me. But as I grew and read stories about loss, I would go back to that picture with a deeper understanding, until eventually I could weep for my friend, and the people who loved and lost her.
While the books of my childhood showed me life could be cruel, they also showed me that there was still love. That bad things could happen, but there was also hope and healing. That life might not seem fair, but eventually there was a way forward. They taught me what resiliency was, and how to harness it in the darkest times.
The truth is, those books hadn’t broken my heart. Not really. They’d caused an awakening in it, and helped it grow. That’s what good books do.
Even so, these are the types of books most often met with resistance by adults who feel they’re harmful to children. After my novel, See You At Harry’s, was published, I received this letter:
Dear Jo Knowles,
I am writing as a parent, physician and mother of three sons with concerns about the content of your book, “See you at Harry’s”. I picked this book for my 10 year old son who is in the 5th grade. After reading the back, I assumed that the devastating event would be something a 10 year old could handle or have seen before. When reading the book with him, I was not only devastated but maddened. The book was so disturbing, sad, and was planted in the sensitive brain and thoughts of my son… Please spare other readers and young people who wish to remain free of such horrible thoughts and scenes. It is only fair to families, parents and young children to be warned of this occurrence…
I was overwhelmed with guilt when I read this message. My intention when writing books is not to “devastate” children. I write to make sense of the world. I’ve always believed that in doing so, I shed light on the pains that already exist and are hurting real kids every day. By doing that, I hope to help others who have experienced similar pains feel less alone–and to inspire empathy and understanding in those who haven’t.
Of course we want to protect children from pain, so that they “remain free of such horrible thoughts and scenes.” But this sentiment assumes we can prevent tragedies from happening. We can’t.
Keeping sad books from children can’t keep sadness from their lives. What books can do is help give kids the knowledge they need to better understand and cope with life’s challenges.
I wish I could show concerned adults the letters I’ve received from kids who’ve read my books who say, “I didn’t realize how much I love my sister” or “I understand now what my friend was going through” or “I’m so relieved to know I’m not the only one this happened to.” I wish they could see the kids who have come up to me at events to say “Thank you for writing books with characters like me,” and burst into tears of relief.
It’s because of these kids that I implore you to welcome books about all kinds of social issues, however potentially challenging, into your classrooms, libraries and homes. Of course there are exceptions. Some children really aren’t ready or able to process more tragedy. But for most, books open minds and inspire thoughtful discussion. They may seem to break hearts, but I believe they are actually growing them.
Most importantly, these books inspire children to ask, “Why did this have to happen?” which opens the door for the thoughtful adults in their lives to say, “That’s a really good question. Let’s talk about it.”
Jo Knowles is the author of several books for children and teens. Her newest middle grade novel, WHERE THE HEART IS, has been called “a gift to every kid who feels stuck between who they were and who they might want to be come,” by William Alexander, National Book Award-winning author of A Properly Unhaunted Place and “An immensely appealing, hard-to-put-down story about friendship and love, heartache and bravery—and above all, family” by Rebecca Stead, Newbery Medal winner of When You Reach Me.