Saturday, June 27, 2009

Key themes in children's books: Conquering fears

As children grow up there is an increasing realisation that the world isn't always as it seems. There are dangers, strangers, uncertainties and sometimes well-founded as well as irrational fears. 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 will also see children expressing 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 characters conquer them or move towards controlling them, learn from the experience and move 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, for 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 (he has said he identifies 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 classic 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 Nana 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 and 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 Milli' 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 a tale 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 (thirty years earth time in the book) later 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 mine. But 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 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 favourite 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.

Related links

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

All previous posts on children's literature (here)


Unknown said...

My daughter is three (almost four) and has recently developed a fear of dogs. Are there any children's books you could reccommend for us to read? Thanks!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Sarah, thanks for your question. The first thing to say is that it's quite common for children to develop a fear of dogs if they aren't familiar with them. I'm assuming that your daughter doesn't have a full-blown phobia about dogs (if she does you should see your doctor or paediatrician for advice). If you have a friend with a quiet and friendly dog you could also try spending small amounts of time with them. All the better if they have children who can demonstrate their comfort around dogs. Books can help too. If you can associate positive images of dogs through books it may help. Here are a few suggestions:

* Any books that present dogs as having different dispositions and personalities. The Hairy Maclary books by Lynley Dodd are charming. They have sold over 5 million copies and present a range of dogs with unique personalities of all shapes and sizes. The Clifford books also fit into this category.
* Books that more directly address the topic of children showing fear of dogs and overcoming it include: "The Great Big Scary Dog" by Libby Gleeson and "Fang" by Barbara Shook Hazen.
* Books that show a relationship between children and their dogs (with the child as 'master') would also be helpful. For example, books like "The Digging-est Dog" by Al Perkins.

Hope this is of help. Trevor