Lessons In Small Print: The Book is the Balm

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Dec 18, 2014

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We were derailed before we got started.

Battling a bunch of myopic, moralistic adults isn’t easy. Yet there we were, Rupal and I. The storm in the proverbial teacup was over our choice of book for middle school kids: “The Illustrated Mum,” the outstanding Jacqueline Wilson tale for youngsters. The book tells the gritty, very lifelike story of Dolphin and her sister, Star, living in a small London flat with their mother Marigold, a tattoo buff (hence, the title). Marigold’s bipolar disorder and substance abuse is what provoked our dissenters’ attacks – in person, in e-mail, in text messages.

“Is this what you need to expose them to?”

“It’s inappropriate for their age!”

“Why not stick to safe stories, classics, like ‘Heidi’?”

Because life isn’t always safe, we wanted to cry out loud! But they railed on, unstoppable, relentless. In herd hysteria, indignant parents and teachers rejected the totally true-to-life, identifiable theme of a vulnerable single mother struggling to bring up her daughters.

The Illustrated MumWe’d settled on “The Illustrated Mum” with good reason. Several 10- and 11-year-olds in the group said they already knew the book, but begged us for a repeat read together. Our reckoning was that they would benefit from a mature viewpoint, rather than be left alone to grapple with issues of such gravitas.

Inviting a child psychologist to chat about the book proved the best idea. Though a few parents opted not to send their children, the afternoon saw one of our most enriching discussions. We lost track of the hands shooting up in the air as children vied to share family secrets that had long worried them.

“Now I know why Grandma seems so sad until she takes her pills. She has depression.”

“I think my parents might divorce once my sister and I go to college.”

“My brother in college won’t drink like my dad because he’s seen what can happen.”

They craved conversation with anyone who cared to listen. Kids are happy to discuss engrossing plots, favourite characters, the works. What they still hanker and hunger for – some desperately, some shyly – is to delve deeper. The slant shifts from the story of the books to the story of their lives faster than you can say, “Read Me.”

So we read them. Heard them. No judgment from our side, no facade from theirs.

When we took up another Jacqueline Wilson later, about a pair of best buddies, we discovered it was only ostensibly about friendship. Instead, it burst open the lid of a tightly packed Pandora’s Box. Out they flew – horrifying complaints of anxiety and anger, bullying and ragging, gang rivalries and peer pressure.

The right book can unlock children’s tumultuous inner core. Girls and boys both expressed their thoughts and fears with the spunk and savage candour typical of their age.  They voiced the taut coils of trouble and pain that lay behind their shiny exteriors.

But a book can soothe and strengthen, too, allaying angst and helping the spirit soar. Every disturbing subject sets off new thought processes and boosts hope. Words heal as well as hurt, bringing remarkable gifts: courage, strength, the potential for peace in a bewildering world that exposes kids to casual cruelty as never before.

Children’s literature that is considered “edgy” is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s often simply true-to-life. These stories are hopelessly underrated, despite the fact that they throw unexpected lifelines and spark much-needed debate that acknowledges the darker sides of our quotidian lives. The result is piqued emotional intelligence; children emerge better informed than some of the adults dismissing such books as “monstrous”.

To the latter: Why the ostrich-like attitude? Look around. Conventional relationships are harder found, and fragmented families more easily spotted. The trauma gets adroitly distilled in sensitive works of fiction, which become safe places for kids to explore shades of negativity. Their confusion settles through the problems “other people” battle.

Books hold a mirror to the scary or scarred, lonely or locked worlds children may find themselves in. The darkest themes are the most readily devoured. They may reflect situations rare in the cultural climate of their parents’ adolescence, but not for today’s kids.

Mirroring a society roiled in turmoil, relationship tangles and ethical dilemmas spill boldly on fiction pages for children. Only a blinkered adult could deny this.

This medium is the message all right, and print still offers a partial panacea. Yes, the book is the balm.

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Written By Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia lives and works in Mumbai as a freelance writer and independent publisher. The author of 10 books for children and two for parents, she also runs a reading club for pre-adolescents with Rupal Patel. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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