What to Tell the Children?

In a recent Time article addressed to Kate DiCamillo, Matt de la Peña asks two important questions: “How honest should we be with our readers? Is the job of the writer for the very young to tell the truth or preserve innocence?”  He refers to a touching and sensitive scene in his latest book, Love, where a young boy cowers under a piano as his parents fight bitterly around him.

Replying, DiCamillo writes of that particular illustration: “I felt seen. I was a kid who hid under the literal (and metaphorical) piano. I felt isolated by the secrets and fear in my household.” In this case, De la Peña’s book serves as a mirror for young Kate, and with that point of view she answers his first question.

But there’s more going on in Love. As the child cringes in the illustration, the poem indicates that people, like stars and summers full of love, “flame out.” This flaming out is not the child’s fault nor can he prevent what adults around him are doing. DiCamillo reiterates that same thought in Raymie Nightingale.

When young Raymie Clarke’s father runs off with their dental hygienist, Raymie tries to get his attention so he will return. In a powerful but understated moment, she realizes that she cannot change him; she must just let him go. And she will survive. Such mirrors provide more than a reflection; they provide children with a deep insight into the world around them.

But let’s look at the second question.  Can authors, and by extension, librarians, preserve innocence?  To quote Stanley Yelnats from Holes: “If only, if only.” If only we could protect them from sexual or domestic abuse, from violence, from death, from bullies, from prejudice.  But we can’t.  What do they have to protect themselves with? Information?  And where is one great place to get that information? Books.

I often hear that books about difficult subjects are not appropriate for children.  As librarians, let’s substitute the word appropriate and instead consider using relevant. Numbers of children exposed to domestic violence range from 3.3 to 10 million. The Census Bureau’s 2016 report states that 17.2 million children live with a single mother and although the circumstances are not detailed, there’s a great probability that a goodly number of these children will relate to Raymie’s circumstances.

What is appropriate is a value statement; what is relevant is a statement of fact.  Parents have the responsibility to determine what is appropriate for their children to read.  But librarians have the responsibility to offer materials that are relevant.

De la Peña also asks, “how honest should we be with our readers?”; should writers for the very young “tell the truth.”  Absolutely.  It’s those truths, some difficult, some not so much so, that show children authentic views about themselves and the world around them. And, aren’t those revelations what real reading is all about?


De la Peña, Matt.  Love; illustrated by Loren Long.  New York: Putnam, 2018.

De la Peña, Matt. “Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness.” http://time.com/5093669/why-we-shouldnt-shield-children-from-darkness/  Accessed January 16, 2018.

DiCamillo, Kate. Raymie Nightingale.  Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick, 2016.

DiCamillo, Kate. “Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Sad.” http://time.com/5099463/kate-dicamillo-kids-books-sad/

Accessed January 16, 2018.

Sachar, Louis.  Holes. New York: Farrar, 1998, p. 8.

The Effects of Child Abuse and Exposure to Domestic Violence on Adolescent Internalizing and Externalizing Behavior Problems. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2872483/

Accessed, January 15, 2018.

The Majority of Children Live With Two Parents. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-192.html . Accessed January 15, 2018.