Children’s Books Need to Talk About “Disturbing” Subjects

Children’s Books Need to Talk About “Disturbing” Subjects

Hi friends! 👋🏻 I’m finally back after an unexpected hiatus. For a while, I’d had some technical difficulties with Bloglovin’ not showing my posts and also giving me a bunch of spam followers, and then I needed to improve my site security and I didn’t know how so that definitely took a hit to my motivation. But I’ve managed to get everything fixed so now following with Bloglovin’ is an option again! Yay 🥳

Today I wanted to discuss something that has been on my mind for a good while now: which is the idea that books for children should not talk about serious subjects. This was sparked by a small thread of tweets from someone who said that they couldn’t believe how “disturbing” Jacqueline Wilson’s books are and a reply that said they’re not appropriate for children.

If you’re not familiar with Jacqueline Wilson, she is arguably the most popular children’s author in the UK. Her books often cover serious subjects like child abandonment, divorce, death, stepparents, adoption, divorce, and the foster care system. Obviously, her books can be pretty controversial but that doesn’t stop them from being so popular and even being read in schools.

I personally think that it’s important for children’s books to talk about serious issues instead of being sunshine and rainbows all the time, so here are my reasons why!

books can teach us things

Something that so many of us readers like to say is that we can learn so many things from fiction. A lot of our childhood favourites have taught us about friendship, kindness, community, standing up for what we believe in, so why can’t they do that by showing us characters who are in awful situations?

I personally feel that it’s important for books to have moral lessons and especially for children’s books to show characters who are going through difficult situations because it helps children develop a sense of empathy whether they can actually identify with a character or not. When I was a kid, I loved the Tracy Beaker books but I never wanted to be put into the foster care system because her experiences of being a “problem child” are not ones I would ever have wanted. I admired her for her creativity and boldness and the books featuring her showed me that not every child has the privilege of growing up with their natural family.

children aren’t made of glass

Something that has annoyed the heck out of me for a very long idea is the fact that there are adults who are so overprotective of children that they become sheltered. I don’t have kids and I don’t have any experience of taking care of kids but even I can say that wrapping up kids in metaphorical bubble wrap is not a good thing. When I was still a frequent church-goer a lot of the kids there would only be able to read and watch things that their parents had approved of first. This is easier to do with movies because they have actual age-ratings on them, but for books, a lot of them weren’t allowed to read Harry Potter (because of witchcraft) and would only get to experience things with mature subjects until their parents deemed them to be old enough for them.

There are obviously psychological aspects to this that I can’t comment on because I don’t know anything about brains except that I have one, but seeing parents strictly control the media that their kids consume kind of makes me sad because there are so many incredible kids books out there that some kids will never be able to read because their parents don’t like the content. I guess that is a parent’s decision to make, but children are not as fragile as we think they are. If a kid reads something that they get scared by, it’s their parents’ jobs to reassure them that it’s fiction.

children aren’t stupid

I shouldn’t even have to say this. Children know a lot more than some adults give them credit for. I’ve always hated the idea that a child’s brain is a blank slate that can be moulded into whatever their parents want it to be. It is true that most of what we learn comes from our parents and teachers, but the idea that our brains are blank when we are born is just ridiculous.

There are kids out there who will believe everything you tell them, but there are even more kids who know when they’re being lied to and are able to tell fact from fiction. We need to stop treating kids like idiots and give them respect.

serious subjects should not be relegated to higher reading levels

When I say “serious subjects”, I don’t mean sex and extreme violence because those are obviously not suited for children’s books. Serious subjects in kidlit are issues and events that could and do happen to real children, like divorce, child abuse, abandonment, adoption, losing friends, changing schools, and so on. Books are educational, and not just cute little bedtime stories so I feel like younger people should be allowed to read about tough issues because it helps them to learn.

In recent years (or maybe I haven’t been paying attention) there have been more kids books that talk about race, gender, sexuality, and disability in ways that kids can understand, but they’re not completely dumbed down. There are people who object to there being picture books about kids who have parents of the same gender, but I don’t because that is something that happens in real life, and while we may prefer kids to read fantasy to expand their imaginations, contemporary books are just as important because they reflect the real world around us.

“disturbing” is subjective

Naturally, what one person considers to be disturbing and inappropriate is different to another person. A lot of people think that children’s media shouldn’t mention periods at all, while I wish more did because I didn’t have any kids things that mentioned periods at all when I was a wee one. If I may share some very personal information, I got my first ever period when I was 9 years old, which is very young to start menstruating. I was the first person in my year group to get it, and I got teased for it by the other kids (especially the other girls). I wish I had books that told me that getting my period was natural and normal because I let what the other girls said to me get to me so badly that I didn’t use the toilets at school for six years.

My personal stories aside, I am glad that parents guides for media exist because they let not just parents know what content they should look out for, but people like me who have certain triggers and want to know where to avoid them because a simple age rating doesn’t do that. However, just reading a list of examples of potentially objectionable content doesn’t really do much because the person writing that list could be exaggerating. There have been plenty of times that I’ve read an IMDb content guide and someone has put “VERY VIOLENT AND VERY SCARY” when I didn’t think it was all that bad.

talk to me!

What’s your stance on children’s books being about serious subjects? If you’re a parent, would you want your kids to read books about potentially disturbing things?

9 Comments

  1. July 3, 2020 / 1:42 pm

    I totally agree with you on this! I remember reading Jacqueline Wilson’s books as a kid, and loving them! The serious issues in them didn’t disturb me, in fact I think it taught me a lot about the world, and I would definitely say it made me more empathetic.
    Kids can definitely handle more than some people think, and to be honest, fiction is probably one of the best ways for kids to learn more about serious issues.
    Great post! 🙂

    • Louise
      Author
      July 7, 2020 / 2:07 am

      To me, fiction is definitely one of the best ways for kids to learn about serious issues. There are always going to be some kids who get confused and think that it’ll happen to them, but it’s their parents’ job to teach them that although these things can happen, it won’t necessarily happen to them and they need to be more empathetic towards people going through tough times.

  2. July 16, 2020 / 1:16 am

    I agree with you all the way.

    Books aren’t much different than videogames; if you’d allow them to play “violent” war-games (not everybody does, but some definately don’t care about that), then they should be able to read and understand the concept behind “disturbing subjects”. The parent can even help their child to understand if they don’t- as long as they’re able of asking questions about it and be told the truth.. while parents do want to shelter their child, sadly things like this DO happen; so it’s important for them to understand, the earlier the better.

    I remember the big twitter fuss that a white momma did when nickelodeon did a publicity of a black screen and breathing for 6minutes (ithink it was? not sure how many exactly) when #ICantBreathe came out. She had said her toddler was scared and it was NOT children appropriate .. While for many black children, this is their reality that they need to stay aware of, because society doesn’t shelter them.. If we wanna create a better future, we need our kids to see and understand this.

    • Louise
      Author
      July 28, 2020 / 7:34 pm

      I think there’s an unfortunate trend of people hiding their bigotry behind their children because we once had an incident in the UK where people complained to the BBC about a children’s TV presenter who has one hand, and those people said she shouldn’t be allowed on children’s TV because she “scared” their children, when in reality children are often the most accepting people.

  3. July 17, 2020 / 12:48 am

    I’m a fan of disturbing children’s books because I hated reading until I discovered Stephen King. I think I would have started reading much earlier in life if I had access to edgy books. Since “disturbing” is subjective, I think parents need to know their children and pay attention to what they’re reading. One kid might be terrified of something that another kid will just shrug at.

    • Louise
      Author
      July 28, 2020 / 7:45 pm

      I was the opposite when it was a kid because I wouldn’t even touch a Goosebumps book and got scared by Harry Potter 😂 I agree that parents do need to know their children because it helps them to figure out what they can and can’t handle.

  4. July 24, 2020 / 4:03 pm

    You make so many good points here. Especially the idea that disturbing is subjective. I’ll be honest, my daughter couldn’t handle topics that she found “disturbing” when she was younger—it took her a long time to get to the point where she could read a book that was especially sad or upsetting without triggering her anxiety. But that didn’t mean that I thought those books were intrinsically “bad.” Sometimes in a review I might mention that I thought a book was a little “much” for middle grade, but I never said outright that the book was wrong or bad—just that it would definitely not be right for my own child.

    • Louise
      Author
      July 28, 2020 / 7:49 pm

      It’s good that you have that way of thinking because no two kids are ever the same, and a lot of other parents are a little too overprotective of their kids when it comes to the media that they experience.

  5. July 31, 2020 / 7:54 am

    This is such a well thought out discussion, and I totally agree with you on all your points!
    I know I struggle with the “children aren’t made of glass” point – I know it’s true, but I still worry :’) Luckily, I’m not in charge of any children at this point in my life, lol.
    I especially agree with you on the point about serious subjects. I have come across people arguing that discussions about sexuality shouldn’t be included in children’s media, but I know if I had seen that sort of media as a kid some things would have been different for me. I think it’s similar with what you say about media mentioning periods – I’m sure it would lessen teasing by kids if they were exposed to these things and understood them better – it’s so frustrating!! I’m so sorry to hear about your personal experience, even if it was a long time ago.
    On another note, I read IMDb content guides all the time and sometimes they are wildly out of proportion from my perspective! I love the people who actually count the number of times certain swear words are used, because that’s not so subjective!

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