Friday, September 27, 2013

bestowing stories

Once upon a time, long, long ago, Nicholas came home from school and asked how we felt about him reading The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.  There was quite a buzz about it at school, it was the cool book to read.  I love books that make it cool to read.  But I did a bit of research and was concerned.  Concerned about how Nicholas would respond to the violence in the book, particularly to the darker content, the psychologically darker content of the later books in the series, because I guessed that once he read one, just as Collins has set it up to draw you in to read the next book, he would want to read on.

I hoped he could wait a bit to read it, when he could follow his interest and enthusiasm and read on, without becoming too troubled by what he read, given what I know about him and what tends to trouble him.  And then, not long after, he came home and asked how we felt about him seeing The Hunger Games movie, as many of his friends were planning to do when it was released.  That was not a hard one; he does not watch movies that have such difficult subject matter.

But we were still unsure about reading the book, and about whether we should even be the ones deciding whether he should read the book.  We own And Tango Makes Three.  We have it facing out on our bookshelf here at home.  We rant and rave about how incensed it makes us, somewhat overly dramatically for effect, but also because we truly feel this way, about how this book, with its subject matter of two male penguins raising a non-biologically related penguin in a loving and wonderful way, would be excluded from libraries and classrooms because of such content.  "How could they do such a thing?" we ask them.  Our children are just as enraged.  Awesome.

The fact that their father is a Librarian, one who celebrates Banned Book Week more reverently than the Fourth of July, may also have some influence.

But it also makes things more complicated.  What do we do about our children wanting to read a book that we don't feel they are developmentally ready for, or maybe perhaps more accurately we don't want them to be developmentally ready for, without crossing the line into being book banning burning zealots?

As I have mentioned before, influenced by this article I had read about Lois Lowry's thoughts on book banning and The Hunger Games and speaking to children, we decided that we wanted him to read Lowry's The Giver Quartet first, and he did just that this summer.  Then, we said, he could read The Hunger Games.

In my mind, Lowry and I are on a first name basis, so I will call her Lois from here on out.  My children do as well.  I know.  Weird.  I have never spoken with her.  But let me explain our relationship.

Several years ago, I attended a panel discussion at which Lois was a participant. What she said that day stuck with me. There was a great deal of talk by panel members about the popularity, salability, successfulness of books at one point in the discussion. And Lois, who seemed to me a bit like she would have rather been home in her lovely and quiet house working through a new book, said she did not really understand what people were talking about. That she did not sit down and plan what she was going to write, that the story controlled her. She learned what she was going to write about as she was writing it, she waited with anticipation as did her readers to find out what was going to happen and how it was going to end. I liked that sensibility.  And, for whatever reason, I had the feeling she was speaking directly to me, back there in the last row.

It made perfect sense to me to listen to Lois, to read her books first, and so Nicholas, Jonathan and I embarked on the Quartet this summer.

And then, in a coincidence that seems telling, Nicholas was assigned Lois' Gathering Blue as required summer reading, and his school year has begun using this text.  His class has jumped right into literary devices, writing as readers, reading as writers, text interpretation, close reading, classroom discussion, and analysis of the story.

And then, another coincidence, an email message arrived telling of Lois' return to Maine and about her being a speaker at USM, sponsored by The Telling Room here in Portland.  I knew I wanted to take Nicholas.  And Julia, having listened a bit to Gathering Blue here at home when Nicholas was reading it, and hearing us discuss it with such enthusiasm, had spent her sick days home from school last week listening to The Giver and loving it.  She wanted to come, too.  We bought two tickets, and then three.  And then discovered that we had a conflict, that I was missing Nicholas' Open House at school to go, and that Jonathan would not be able to stay home with Elliott while I took the older kids, because he would be representing the family at Open House.  And we bought a fourth ticket.  For Elliott.

We arrived in the auditorium, not yet full, a bit hurried and with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  We found a seat, then moved, so the shorter ones amongst us could see the podium.  And then waited.  Elliott took off his shoes.  He and Julia discovered the tip up writing surfaces and manipulated them for a bit.  Julia blushed when I asked her to stop, realizing she had gone a bit young childish there for a few minutes, when she so very much wanted to be a big kid here.  And Nicholas read the program, noting how the program's cover had been designed to look like the covers of the Quartet books.

And then, Lois was introduced by Andrew Griswold, and he spoke eloquently of teaching her book when he was a young teacher and how her book had changed his first year of teaching, and his years of teaching from then on.  That he had had a moment of connection with her book, and had watched his student connect with the book, and then, as a result, had been able to break through his first experiences of teaching and reached that sweet spot of true engagement in learning with his students.  At least, that's what I heard in what he said.

And he said this, which I jotted in my notebook, the kids leaning in to see what their mommy was writing, wondering why this and not something else.  It was the one thing I wrote during the entire talk.  Nothing else.  He said: Ms. Lowry manages to unsettle her readers in just the right ways.

And from this comment, I became a bit unsettled.  Somewhat self conscious.  Here I was, a psychologist, a children's book enthusiast, a mommy of three children of different ages, sitting in the audience.  Likely Elliott should not have been here, it was out of necessity that he was.  And Julia was a little more Gooney Bird Greene than Kira.  And Nicholas was in it, eyes wide open, engaged.

What was she going to say.  What might Elliott hear that would keep him awake that night?  Had I made the wrong choice in coming?

Once Lois took the stage, we all relaxed a bit.  Elliott smiled at me when she projected a picture of herself petting a dog, called herself an animal lover, and spoke of her experience as a child being read The Yearling by her mother.  Julia sat up in her chair, her feet dangling and swinging in the auditorium's too big chair, leaned forward and tightened her lips when Lois spoke of writing Gooney Bird Greene, a child so different from herself, Lois never having been to second grade herself and certainly, as a shy and introspective child, not at "a desk right smack in the middle of the room, because I like to be right smack in the middle of everything."

And Nicholas?  He sat quietly and listened, relatively unreadable.  But attentive.  I tapped him knowingly a few times when Lois said something that touched on something he and I had spoken about in the past.  I tapped his knee and whispered that's cool  to him when she told the story of why she had written The Giver.  He nodded at me, but also let me know we should be quiet.

Lois explained that the story idea for The Giver had come during a drive home from a visit with her aging father who was slowly losing his memories.  And that he was forgetting over and over again that his other daughter, Lois' sister, had died young, years ago.  And that his mind was slowly erasing some of the pain from his life.  And how she began to consider what it would be like if a society did this, removed the bad, the pain, the adversity, from the consciousness of its members.  And how this could be good, and this could also be bad.  And these musings gave rise to The Giver.

It immediately made me think of another one of Lois' books, Gossamer, one that is a particular favorite of mine, given its focus on dreams. Some Freudian dream interpretation coursework and work of my professional past, got me sitting up at attention when I read passages such as this:
Through touching, they gather material: memories, colors, words once spoken, hints of scents and the tiniest fragments of forgotten sound. The collect the pieces of the past, of long ago and of yesterday. They combine these thing carefully, creating dreams, Then they insert the dreams as the humans...sleep. The act of dream insertion is called bestowal.
And this passage made me think of young minds, overexposed, presented with content before they are ready.
Delving means touching too deeply. pressing your hand instead of using that lovely light flickering touch you just showed me. It sometimes happens unintentionally, when dream-givers become too interested in what they're touching...You can't be a dream giver when you come consumed by the dark side, the menace. 
And ultimately, this passage.  Because it is such a reminder to me in this parenting gig.
And you know what Thin Elderly? Sad parts are important. If I ever get to train a new young dream-giver, that's one of the parts I will teach: that you must include the sad parts, because they are a part of the story, and they have to be part of the dream.
Gossamer was not a book that Lois had time to speak about that evening.  But it was one that was there in my mind as we listened.  Having recently read this New York Times post about the inclusion of difficult subjects in middle reader and young adult literature, I had been thinking about the diet of issues my children are taking in with some of their current reading.

Nicholas tends toward fantasy and science fiction, and fathers who exterminate young children in The Giver are mixed in with young heroes that overcome difficulties, pain, and loss to become strong.  Julia tends toward realistic fiction and in the past month has devoured books about characters with craniofacial deformities, cerebral palsy, and now autism.  Just as their father is kind and gentle and they have not experienced mortal wounds, they also have limited experience with these other adversities.  These books are exposing them to struggles and adversities far worse than their everyday life.  While Julia hears stories of overcoming obstacles and kindness, Nicholas imagines himself there, with a sword, on a dragon, choosing between good and evil.

These stories and their authors, they bestow themselves upon my children.  Having sat in the room with Lois, I strangely feel I trust her judgement, her ability to unsettle my children in the right ways.  Not too much, just enough.  To give them an experience, complete with emotions, that affect them.  And affect each differently, given who they are and what they can take in.

* * *

I am a little bit proud to say that Nicholas devoured all four of the Quartet books, and then read The Hunger Games and is only part of the way through the second book of that series, his interest seeming to have fizzled a bit.  It could be that school has started and he is busy, or it could be that he was more drawn to The Giver Quartet.  I choose to believe the latter.

In a way, as parents, we are bestowing the world upon our children.  We are gatekeepers, intentional and unintentional, deciding, especially when they are young, what they will experience of the world, and what we will hold back and protect them from.  Learning the right balance between allowing the information to flow in and when to close the gate a bit, and also knowing when to step back as they decide to walk past us and out that gate.

This getting older thing my children are doing is constantly challenging this.  Because I know in my heart, and I observe as they experience some of it, and process it, that they need to know this world, its good and its bad.  So that they can know the whole story.  And also, to inform their dreams, because these dreams will determine where they go, and how they move about the world.

So I'm never going to tell them they can't read a book.  But I might ask them to read it just a little later, to wait for their feet to swing a little closer to the floor.  I will trust that their minds will protect them, allow them to take what they can handle from the story, and leave the rest for later. Their young and strong and complicated minds will keep them from delving.   And I will be there with them, reading alongside them, in case they get in too deep.

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