Sunday, August 31, 2008

Reader's Diary #391- Eve Bunting (author) and David Diaz (illustrator): Smoky Night

To put things in perspective for this review, my children are 5 and 3, and my 3 year old was, by chance, asleep when I decided to read Eve Bunting's Smoky Night aloud. Luckily. My 5 year old? I'm relieved she was able to sleep afterwards.

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 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?


Barbara Bruederlin said...

You were right to feel unease about reading that to your daughter; I don't think I would want to either. The dead man with no arms line sort of freaked me out too, and I am considerably older than 5.

That said, every child is different, and accepts and absorbs things at different rates. Your daughter sounds quite sophisticated so perhaps she is ready for a discussion about race relations.

Nikki in Niagara said...

No, I would not read it to a 5 you, neither would I read it to my 8yo. Books like this serve a purpose. But we've never experienced a city riot nor are we likely too (since we live in a small town) so I wouldn't read this to my children at all.

If my teenager were interested in the subject I would direct him to the book as a starting point.

Personally, I believe, for my children that they do not need to be introduced to the ugliness of life before the age of 12, unless it is real to their own life and experiences. Or it deals with their safety (ie talking to strangers and what to do if approached by a weirdo)

Anonymous said...

If it had been my daughter who had selected the book herself, then most certainly I would have read it to her or permitted her to read it herself. If it had been me who had selected it then I might have suggested that we not read it and explained why. But I would not have held the book back if she still wanted to read it.

It would be nice if we could protect our children against the ugliness and complexity of the world until we think they are ready to understand or face such things. Unfortunately, as soon as they are out in the community we do not have that control. I remember when one of my daughters came home with the news that one of her classmates had attempted suicide. My daughter was nine years old! I am pretty sure that when I was nine, the word suicide was not even in my vocabulary and I wouldn't have expected it to be in my daughter's either, but there it was.

My children were never censored in their reading material. Nor was I as a child. I clearly remember asking my mother for permission to read one of her books and her response that she thought the book was too adult for me but I could read it if I wanted and we could talk about it after if *I* wanted. The book was not porn but it did contain some very explicit sexual scenes. I remember feeling privileged to have been able to read such an adult book and somehow proud of my mother for permitting me to. I did not talk with my mother about the book when I read it but it did give me an "in" to talk to my mother about that subject later when I wanted to.

I used the same approach with my children. While I did not deliberately go out in search of provocative books for them to read, I allowed them to read anything they were capable of reading. As they were early and voracious readers they frequently read things that were, in my opinion, beyond their experience and ability to understand. But they knew that I was open to talking about anything they read and we frequently did talk (almost always at their instigation although I sometimes tried to open up subjects I knew they had been reading about). As I had the luxury of staying home when my kids were little and throughout their elementary school years, I had the time to and did read every book that came into the house. And, I was always available to them and their friends. Our house was the "let's have a talk" house not only for my own children but their friends as well.

Your daughter will probably not be as affected by what you've read in the way you fear, but she will be armed with some of the vocabulary for things she will eventually learn about or experience and the knowledge that she can talk about these things with her Dad.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Even before the book, we've had a few talks about race relations. There was quite a bit of racism in Iqaluit, and the issue came up from time to time.

Nicola: I've never lived in a large center either (St. John's was the largest). Not that violence can't make itself known in any community, but the sorts we've encountered have been different than riots.

Pooker: My parents, though they often complained about the state of current music, etc, didn't try too hard to steer us clear of such things either. My sister and I didn't vocalize our thoughts on such matters either, so there wasn't a lot of conversation about what we just watched, listened to, or read, usually on the sly. I'd like to think we turned out okay despite it all, but it is a different world now where access to anything is much easier. I want to try a bit more two-way communication with my own children, and as I said, will probably just look for a middle ground- whatever that is.

Thanks for all the opinions!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call this a children's book. However, I know many African Americans who refuse to bring home any other type of book for their kids to read. I have been told that the kids don't want to read anything else because they feel it is not targeted to them as an audience. I don't buy it. I feel that a child who only reads negative material grows up to believe there is no other type of life available but a violent one.

John Mutford said...

Violette: I'm surprised by that observation when just off the top of my head I can think of four picture books with African Americans as the central characters and those books are positive, nonviolent, and not political at all.

Teddy Rose said...

I can't imagine reading that to a 5-year-old!

Btw, I nominated you for an award on my blog.

Allison said...

The image of the man with no arms reminded me of a book shortlisted for the Greenaway medal (children book illustration award) here in the UK. The name escapes me, but I just remember very graphic descriptions of violence (although it was fairytale based). And I was shocked it was labeled a young reader.

I don't have kids, so can't really weigh in, but I know with my parents with books and films we watched a lot of thing perhaps we shouldn't have so early on, but they always came with a huge discussion afterwards, and I am defintely richer now from it.