My wife and I have talked a lot lately about censoring things from our kids. We agree that sheltering them too much is not preparing them for the real world, yet we're not ready to sit them down to watch South Park quite yet either. Somewhere there must be a middle ground.
Smoky Night pushed my boundaries, not in a good taste sort of way, but in a "does she really need to be exposed to this right now?" way. In my defense, sometimes you don't have the time to thoroughly inspect every library book you bring home beforehand, and I thought Eve Bunting + Caldecott Medal was a safe bet.
Skimming over the jacket flap, I found out it was based on the LA riots. Hard to sterilize that tale, I figured, but the "what we can all learn from such upheavals" bit sold me. So, I gave it a go. On the second page:
"Below us they are smashing everything. Windows, cars, streetlights.
'They look angry. But they look happy, too,' I whisper.
'After a while it's like a game,' Mama says."
At this point, I'll admit, I'm a bit scared myself. Then again, I rationalize, as an adult I understand what's going on more and the implied threat. I trudge on.
On page 16, right after the boy and his mother have evacuated their apartment building which has been set on fire:
"A street sign lies crumpled in the gutter. I grab hold of Mama because I think I see a dead man with no arms lying there, too. But it's one of those plastic people that show off clothes in department stores."And this is the point when I wished I'd backed out earlier. I mean the dead man was a nice touch, but the no arms? Well, that was the pièce de résistance, wasn't it?
So, how did my daughter handle it? Fine, I suppose. We talked A LOT about it afterwards, especially as I feared that the whole cats bringing two neighbours closer together bit at the end didn't really erase the violent images of earlier or even offer much of a counter. Maybe to a child it would suffice, or maybe they're able to handle stressful images and stories more than I give them credit. I mean, I read fairy tales to my children and those stories can be down right cruel (Hansel and Gretel, anyone?) yet there haven't been any nightmares. But, I finished Smoky Night, put it up on a shelf and hoped the other library books would make her forget that one. Then today, I saw that she had gotten it down and was reading it to her younger brother. I stopped her, explained that it might be a little too scary, and suggested a different book: Stephen King's Misery (kidding).
At Amazon.com Smoky Night is age listed for 4-8 year olds, while Publisher's Weekly suggests it for 5+. These ages should, of course, be suggestions, as most parents or caregivers should know what their child is or isn't able to handle, maturity-wise. I guess my daughter was able to handle it emotionally, but I'm not sure why she should have to. I'm not saying such books aren't important. There was another book at the library that day with the title "My Daddy Drinks Too Much" that we didn't check out. Such books serve a purpose for those children who have experienced riots, alcoholic fathers, and other tragedies, but do all children need to read them?
I 'm not blaming anyone here, except maybe myself for not checking the books a little more carefully. Bunting wasn't in the wrong for writing such a book. The Caldecott people weren't necessarily in the wrong for awarding it the medal; David Diaz's illustrations and collages are quite rich. And certainly the library wasn't wrong for making the book available.
In the end, I think I was more affected by the experience than my daughter. Perhaps a little discomfort is a good thing. I'm not sure. Anyone care to weigh in? Would you read such a book to a five year old?