“Twice this fall I was left speechless by a child.” Matt de la Peña begins his January 9, 2018 essay, Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness. In response to a student’s question he cannot stop thinking about, he poses his own important questions:
How honest can an author be with an auditorium full of elementary school kids? 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?
Because of Matt’s picture book, Love, I too have been at a loss for words — until now, that is — reeling with questions of my own over the past two days. Really, it all began two years ago.
Matt and the illustrator of Love, Loren Long, came to my favorite local, independent bookstore, Hicklebee’s, to promote the book in January 2018. I got my autographs and photographs like any dutiful professional author/illustrator stalker would and walked into my kindergarten classroom the next morning ill-prepared for what was to come.
I gathered the children in a circle on the meeting rug, opened the book, told the children that I’d met Matt the night before, and how excited I was to read this absolutely beautiful book to them.
“It’s so beautiful that I experienced the kind of feelings that led me to cry,” I whispered dramatically.
To my disappointment, the read aloud was not evoking the same emotions I’d experienced during my own reading. Until I turned to this page:
de la Peña and Long were asked to “soften” this illustration prior to publication because it was perceived as “too heavy” for children. Thankfully, they declined.
Upon seeing this illustration, the room filled with the buzz of comments.
“I see what’s happening,” said one little boy, “the mom and the dad had a fight. The dad
had a drunk. That’s why the mom was mad. The dad turned over the furniture and now
he’s leaving. The little boy is hiding under there because he is scared and he needs to be
safe. The dog is taking care of the boy. It makes him feel better.”
Other students made further observations and we finished reading the book. As we stood up from the meeting area to go to recess, the little boy made a beeline for me, wrapped his arms around my waist and buried his head into my soft belly. It was the first hug he’d ever given me.
“I love you, [student’s name],” I said, giving him my signature kiss on the crown of his head.
“I love you, Ms. J.”
I later discovered he’d been temporarily placed in foster care.
Love was a turning point in our life as an emotional unit that school year. The children spoke candidly about the domestic violence and verbal abuse that occurs in their homes and this vulnerability drew us closer together and gave us the opportunity to be one another’s healers.
Fast forward two years and I have the great fortune of teaching many of the same children who were in the room the first time I read Love to students. They are second-graders now. I reread books we read in kindergarten to them regularly and am often amazed by the depth of thought living to the wise, old ages of seven and eight has given them.
We are working on writing book reviews with text evidence in our current unit of study and I thought Love was a perfect picture book for us to study together and write about for many reasons. And, once again, I wasn’t ready.
I gathered the children on the meeting rug in their writing partnerships ready to reread the book and gather text evidence.
“Oh, friends, I am so excited about writing a review of this book together. I think it’s one we all agree is wonderful,” I said, placing the text under the document camera.
To my surprise, there was no chatter, as there often is, about how we had read the book in kindergarten. Disappointed — I thought Love really meant something to us — I opened the book and began reading.
And when we arrived at the aforementioned page, which is pretty far into the book, there were audible gasps and what seemed like a million tiny hands flew up.
“Ms. J! We read this book in kindergarten!” one girl said.
“Yes, I remember this page.” a boy added.
“Me too!” said another boy.
“Wow, friends! I wonder why you just remembered this book when we got to this page?” I asked.
Another boy, the boy whose head is still imprinted in my belly from that hug we shared two years ago, said, “I remember now because I took a picture of this page in my mind in kindergarten. It’s still there!”
My eyes welled up with tears as I turned the page, and each thereafter, and finished Love.
This emotional moment was powerful, but it didn’t deter me from accomplishing our instructional goal. We had grand conversations about Love over a couple of days, wrote a shared review of the book, and then the children wrote their own. The boy had this to say:
One reason everybody should read Love is because it shows some sad stuff that can happen to you a lot. For example, when the mom was crying, the dad was knocking over stuff like a chair and leaving the house, and the son was hiding under the piano, it was 100% sad because that can happen. . .
In Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness, Matt concludes by answering his own questions:
In the book world, we often talk about the power of racial inclusion — and in this respect we’re beginning to see a real shift in the field — but many other facets of diversity remain in the shadows. For instance, an uncomfortable number of children out there right now are crouched beneath a metaphorical piano. There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one.
Brené Brown wrote, “Everyone has a story or a struggle that will break your heart. And, if we’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring us to our knees. You would think the universal nature of struggle would make it easier for all of us to ask for help, but in a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, there can still be so much shame around reaching out, especially if we’re not raised to understand the irreducible nature of human need. . . To know pain is human. To need is human. . . Need is the most beautiful compact between humans. . .”
Experiencing adversity and processing pain are a part of the human experience. As much as many of us, myself included, deify them, children are human beings. Our classrooms must be places where children are permitted to experience, talk about, ponder, and heal from the trauma caused by “this largely unspoken part of our interior lives.”
I have said and written it a million times and I will do it a million more: Children are the truth! They are better equipped to navigate the emotional landscape of life with honesty than most of us. And books like Love create space in our hearts, minds, and classrooms and engender the vulnerability required for us to “reach out” and make that “beautiful compact between human beings” children need to experience to lay the foundation for living authentically their entire lives.
So, as a little girl wrote in her review:
“One reason Love is an amazing book is because there is strong feelings. For example, on one page a father and his daughter were practicing dance. This showed me that the father has a heart full of love for his daughter!
If you want to get a book that shows deep feelings, get Love.”