WHY BOOKS ABOUT HARD TOPICS ARE ESSENTIAL by Donna Gephart
I had a secret fear when I attended Solis-Cohen Elementary School, which I carried with me every day, along with my books. My classmates, I was convinced, would tease me for wearing the same thing to school every day because I owned only two pair of pants and a few tops.
Then I borrowed the book, A Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, from the Free Library of Philadelphia. Dear reader, it blew my pint-sized mind.
The main character, Wanda Petronski, was made fun of for wearing the same thing to school every day. How did she deal with that? I had to know. Wanda, it turned out, had a unique, creative response. This slim book was everything to my young soul as I lived with financial challenges throughout childhood.
Nearly one in five children live below the poverty level in our country right now. I’m sure that statistic will balloon as we struggle through the current crisis.
These days, a book like Rex Ogle’s middle grade memoir, Free Lunch, can make young readers feel less alone with their own financial insecurity. It can also develop empathy and understanding for young people of privilege. A Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman gracefully illuminates deep poverty combined with hope – a gift to children whose families struggle financially.
Growing up in my working-class neighborhood, there was a neighbor who touched me inappropriately when I was nine. I felt so alone and ashamed that I wasn’t able to tell my mom until I was fourteen and the man had already moved away. I wonder if I’d have been braver and spoken up sooner if I’d read a book like Kate Messner’s Chirp, about a girl who learns to use her voice to speak up about being touched in ways that made her uncomfortable. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s new book, Fighting Words (August 11, 2020), deals with sexual abuse in a way that’s careful and appropriate for young readers and will surely empower the young people who read it.
According to RAINN, one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. Other organizations list much higher statistics.
Now, as we are confined to our homes during these challenging days, I think about how much more restrictive it is being in jail or prison. I think about how such seemingly endless confinement is cruel and damaging to the psyche, which craves human connection and stimulation. I also consider how hard it is on families of the incarcerated. While writing The Paris Project about the impact of having a parent in jail, I learned families are forced to pay exorbitant fees to speak with their loved ones by phone or video chat, as those services are provided by private, for-profit companies. Families of incarcerated people are also asked to drive long distances to visit loved ones and spend money they may not have to provide loved ones with basic personal hygiene items.
According to Time, one in fourteen American children has a parent who has spent time in jail or is currently behind bars.
Reading about children in these families helps lessen shame and stigma and lets young readers know they’re not isolated in their experiences.
I’m currently reading Rob Harrell’s Wink about a boy dealing with eye cancer.
My mom had cancer when I was ten. I wish I could have read Wink then. It would have given me more understanding and knowledge so I could have been less afraid.
I wrote In Your Shoes to address grief and how a young person rebuilds the scaffolding of one’s life with the help of family, friends and . . . bowling.
Books about hard topics are essential.
When my mom hid harsh realities from me, books told me the truth.
They provided tools for understanding and dealing with life’s inevitable challenges. Books offered a roadmap for dealing with difficult events and emotions.
That’s why I get so frustrated/upset/angry when parents try to shield their children from difficult books by challenging those works and trying to remove them from schools and libraries. My book, Lily and Dunkin, has been challenged many times in several states. The parents who pose these challenges think by taking away books about hard topics they are removing the hard things that may befall their children.
Life doesn’t work that way.
These people aren’t removing life’s challenges when books are taken away. They’re removing the tools a young person needs to deal with those challenges. They’re robbing a young person of the chance to develop a vocabulary and understanding to talk about life’s difficulties and the skills to deal with them.
Every one of us will face hard things. No one escapes this life unscathed.
Books are the armor we need to confront those hard things.
Taking away that armor doesn’t help young people; it leaves them vulnerable and unprepared.
Donna Gephart writes award-winning middle grade novels about tough topics – The Paris Project, In Your Shoes, Lily and Dunkin, Death by Toilet Paper, How to Survive Middle School, etc. — with humor and heart. She’s a former creative writing teacher and loves sharing her passion for reading and writing with young people. Reading guides and resources are available at www.donnagephart.com.