Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Conquering Fears: Literature as a means for discovery

One of the wonders of children is their innocence. But as they grow up there is an increasing realisation that the world isn't always as it seems. There are dangers, strangers and uncertainties.  Sometimes these are well-founded, while others are irrational or difficult to explain. All parents will have the need at some stage in a child's early life to address one or many fears that their children may have.

Teachers may also hear children expressing some of these fears and uncertainties about unknown, or partially understood things in their world. For the very young this can seem irrational and unjustified from the adult's viewpoint. But the darkness of a room, the strangeness of a new location, sounds in the night, the uncertainty of a parent's absence, and the stress of new teachers and friends, can all lead to unexpected responses from children. In some cases there are deeper fears not even expressed, and at times only partially identified by the child. While many children will express freely their feelings about such fears, some do not. Books can offer a means to expose some of these fears and allow parents and teachers to discuss them openly. In this post I will review some of the books that address the conquering of fears. I will do this by also considering some of the sub-themes that are evident in books of this type for children

1. Conquering unknown fears

Many books for very young children consider the fear that a child experiences when they cannot identify the nature of a threat. Often this type of threat is simply not knowing what lies within a place, or beyond a boundary to their known territory and world. But it can also relate to ideas and concepts beyond the limits of their current understanding. How children face up to these many fears, and the way they deal with them, helps to shape them as they grow up. What distinguishes this group of books is not just that they address fears, but that their key characters conquer them or move towards controlling them, learning from the experience and moving on.

For the very young child books like Jez Alborough's book 'Where's My Teddy' is a lovely example. Eddy cannot find his teddy (whose name is Freddy) and heads off alone to the forest to find him. He becomes lost in the forest that is "dark and horrible in there". "Help!" said Eddy. "I'm scared already! I want my bed! I want my Eddy!" And then a surprise. Something that is potentially dangerous to Eddy (a big bear) has some fears of his own. They face their fears together before retreating to the security of their own familiar surroundings.

Anthony Browne's picture book 'The Tunnel' (1989) is a little more complex and tells the story of a brother and sister. The sister is the 'inside type' who loves reading alone and 'dreaming'. Her older brother loves the rough and tumble of the outdoors. He teases and scares her for fun, but one day after he coaxes her into a tunnel she faces some new fears that she conquers with the help of her brother and in the process their relationship is strengthened.

'The Wolf', written by Margaret Barbalet and illustrated by Jane Tanner (1991) shows vividly how the effects of the fear of the unknown can be crippling. Tal hears sounds in the night that to him are the sounds of a wild wolf. The text of Barbalet and the illustrations of Tanner combine in a masterful way to leave the reader wondering whether this is the story of a real wolf or an imaginary one. Tanner's wonderful paintings show a family imprisoned by the fear of a wolf that comes closer and closer each night. However, finally Tal confronts his fear and the family is released from its grip on all of them (parents will relate to this as well).

Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott Honour book 'Outside Over There', is a strangely haunting story that at one level tells the story of a baby that is kidnapped by goblins from the care of her sister (Ida), while her father is at sea and her mother is in the Arbor. But at a deeper level Sendak addresses the psychological struggles of a child coping with the unwanted responsibility of looking after her baby sister and her failure to do it well. Some suggest that the story could also show one child's dreadful fantasy of what it might be like to be an orphan herself - to be left alone. There are parallels here with Sendak’s own life, as he is on the record saying that he identified with the baby. Some will ask, as always, is this a children’s book? Yes, but it has depth that would keep university English majors busy for weeks. Is the fear conquered in the story? I think so, as Ida rests in the knowledge that her father "loves her always".

A simpler and more straightforward fear is of the monster that lurks in the shadows of one's room at night. Probably every child faces this fear of the shape or shadow that in the dark seems so threatening, but with first light is strangely familiar. A classic example of this is Mercer Mayer's well-known book There's a Nightmare in my Closet. This is the story of a little boy who has fears for a 'nightmare' that lives in his closet. He shuts the door each night as he goes to sleep. One night he decides to conquer it by staying up and shooting it with his popgun. But when he meets his 'nightmare' he realises that the imaginary monster that is the nightmare is also frightened of the unknown.

The video clip below is a reading of the book by Billy Crystal.

2. Conquering known fears

a) Death 

The fear of death has overlaps with the above but it is so important that I've given it a sub-theme of its own. The most basic of fears is the fear of dying and death. I've written on the general theme of death before on this site (here). There are many books that deal with the experience of death including Hans Wilhelm's I'll always love you, John Burningham's Granpa, Robert Munsch's Love You Forever and Tomie de Paola's Nana Upstairs and Nan Downstairs.  

But here I want to draw a distinction between coping with death and actually 'conquering' it. Most of the above books deal with the experience of death and the message that death is an inevitable end to life. As well,  they suggest that for those who are left to grieve, ultimately life goes on when we lose loved ones. For those who have a faith that sees life beyond death, this will lead to a different treatment. For example, the Christian will teach their child about God's promise of eternal life for those who place their faith in God's son Jesus. When most writers deal with the subject they rarely seek any type of metaphysical solutions to the problem of death. But a few try something a little more ambitious.

Maurice Sendak does this in his mysterious picture book 'Dear Mili' which is based on a story by Wilhelm Grimm. This complex fairy tale (a challenge for adults let alone children) was rediscovered in 1983, and is designed to teach that life can be unpredictable and can have a darker side. It tells of a young widowed mother, who fears for her daughter when invaders come. She sends the child to hide in the forest for three days where the girl becomes lost, prays to God and eventually meets St Joseph who appears as a kind old hermit.

Three days later (thirty years earth time in the book), St Joseph sends the girl back to her mother, who longs to see her once more before she dies. Like many of Sendak’s works, this picture book can be viewed from multiple perspectives. There is a surface-level narrative that most children will follow, but there are other 'layers' to unearth. There is an exploration of death and dying with references to the life beyond this earth. Some literary critics also point to the echoes of the myth of Persephone and Demeter, while others point to the underlying interpretation of Sendak’s illustrations as a pointer to a message about the Jewish holocaust.

A simpler example of how a child copes and then learns from his experience of death is 'Harry & Hopper' written by Margaret Wild (illustrated by Freye Blackwood). Harry's dog Hopper is killed and he struggles to accept the loss. "Would you like to come and say goodbye to Hopper before I bury him?" asks his father. "No," said Harry, and he turned the TV up louder. Harry tries to hide from the truth of Hopper's death and doesn't tell his friends about him being killed. But Hopper comes back to visit Harry in his dreams and he has a chance to say goodbye. Now he is able to acknowledge that Hopper is gone and in Blackwood's last drawing Harry visits the grave. Here at least there is some resolution for Harry in dealing with his pet's death.

b) Danger

Many books deal with how individuals cope with real dangers in their daily life. Each of these generally conclude with the main character coming to a new understanding of themselves and their world, that will help to equip them to deal with future problems.

'The Biggest Bear', by Lynd Ward (1952) is a beautiful book, with detailed pencil drawings throughout. It tells the story of a small boy named Johnny who lives on a farm close to the woods and who decides that he must deal with a great bear who had once threatened his grandfather. But in a real twist, instead of shooting the great bear, he ends up befriending it.

Bill Peet's wonderful book 'Cowardly Clyde' (1980) tells the story of a brave (is that foolish) knight named Sir Galavant and his stead (Clyde). Sir Galavant sets off to kill a dragon that is terrorising the territory, but Clyde is reluctant. The dragon is found but unfortunately it is Clyde that needs to be the brave conqueror not his master, and in the process he learns new lessons in the face of great danger.

c) The threat of other children

There are a number of children's books that deal with the threat of other children, usually with a focus on bullying. Some of these stories deal with animal characters and some with children.

Barbara Shook Hazen's book 'The New Dog' (1995) tells the story of Tootsie, a small white dog whom Miss Pettibone pampers. But Miss Pettibone sends Tootsie off to Danny's Dog walking Group where he learns that life can be tough and other dogs cruel. Tootsie is the new dog trying to break into a group of canine friends who enjoy picking on him. And of course, he has to prove himself.

In similar vein, Al Perkins 'The Digging-est Dog' tells the story of Duke who is rescued by Tommy Brown from the pet store to live on his farm. Duke is introduced to the local dogs and is well received until it becomes obvious that he cannot dig. In trying to prove himself to his mates Duke overshoots the mark and causes problems for his master. But ultimately there is a resolution.

Judy Blume's book 'Blubber' is a classic book for primary aged children that deals with bullying. Jill joins in with the rest of the fifth-grade class to torment a classmate, but she finds out what it is like when the tables are turned on her and she becomes the target.


3. Coping with the challenges of Isolation

Another common fear that children and adults face is the fear of being isolated and alone. One of the best examples that I know of is Jan Ormerod's wonderful picture book 'Lizzie Nonsense' (2004), which was rightfully awarded a Children's Book Council of Australia honour book in 2005. Lizzie lives with her mother, father and baby sister in almost total isolation deep in the Australian bush of the late 19th century. When Lizzie's father heads off for days at a time to cut timber, they are left alone and wait expectantly for his return. Lizzie copes by living in her own fantasyland that her mother sees as "Lizzie nonsense". Her mother protects herself and her family from the perils of the Australian bush as they await the first sign of dust in the distance, telltale sign of their father and husband's return. The books strength is the way it portrays the separate experiences of isolation by all family members and how they cope in their different ways.

4. Coping with the loss of something special

All children at some time will have to deal with the loss of something special. One of my favourite examples of a book that addresses this sub-theme is Shirley Hughes' wonderful story 'Dogger' (1977). This is a favourite with my grandchildren. Dave loses his precious soft brown dog that he calls 'Dogger'. He searches everywhere without success and has to go to bed without him. The whole family joins in the crisis as they seek to find Dogger for whom there is no acceptable substitute. The next day Dave discovers Dogger at the Summer Fair on a stall for sale, but he doesn't have the 5p needed to purchase him and another little girl buys him first. Eventually the problem is solved with Dave's sister Bella unselfishly saving the day by swapping a brand new teddy that she has won to get Dogger back.

Summing Up

I've just scratched the surface with this big thematic area. As can be seen from the above examples, many books offer children the opportunity (or perhaps invitation) to explore their fears. Parents and teachers have a key role to introduce children to such books at appropriate times and support them as they experience the stories and learn from them.

Related links

All previous posts on Key Themes in Children's Literature (here)

Note: This is a revised version of a post I shared on the 27th June 2009.


Anonymous said...

Any ideas for a book to read to help a child who is uncomfortable with water and swimming?

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Anonymous for your question. There's a delightful picture book that I'm just reviewing for another post (should have mentioned it in this one) that deals with learning to swim. It might work. It's 'Heather Fell in the Water' by Doug MacLeod & illustrated by Craig Smith (Allen & Unwin, 2012). The theme of fear of the unknown is certainly represented, but it is indirect and subtle. Readers of the blog might have other suggestions. Trevor

Joanne said...

I can't say with what better timing this post has come! That was me above with the question about swimming, it hadn't even occured to me to prep for swimming lessons by reading about swimming.

None of the books in the post were at our local branch of our library (but I'll get some sent across), but I did find a Steve Parish book "Green Frog's First Swim". Nothing outstanding, but the frog is scared at first then gets in the water and enjoys it.

Worked a treat with my 2 year old! At the pool we were able to talk about the story and what the frog felt and did and we had a little boy literally hop into the water, still somewhat uncertain, but willing to give it a go.

I won't forget to prepare in advance for potentially fearful situations in the future.

Thanks again for a timely post.

Trevor Cairney said...

Great to hear Joanne. I forgot about another new book on my desk that would be ideal for a 2 year old. It's called 'Ruby Learns to Swim'. Amazon has the book. It takes you through every aspect of Ruby's lessons and her ultimate success. Hope the next lesson goes well too. Trevor

Patrick A. Allen said...

Love that you wrote about titles that we still need to share with learnings. Thanks for the post!