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When Do We Let Kids Read About Really Bad Things

Too young for Holocaust lit?

Growing up in a tight knit Jewish community in the 1970s, I wasn’t told about the Holocaust on any particular day. It was just something I knew about.  There were people I knew who’d been there.  When I was little, I didn’t know exactly where there was, but as I got older, I found out. As I did, I read Holocaust novels. There are a lot of kids books about the Holocaust and I read as many as I could.  I must have been at least 8 when I started in on those titles, but for me, the stories colored in between the lines I already knew were on the page.  When my kids start reading books about the Holocaust, it won’t be so familiar to them.  It’ll be new information, and it will be scary.

This is the problem Ruth Franklin grapples with in a recent essay in The New Republic.  Franklin, who wrote a book about literature and the Holocaust, had to decide what to tell her 5 and 7-year old about her book and what kids books about the Holocaust, if any, she might show them.  This problem is one we face over and over again as parents.  How do we tell our kids about terrible things people do to one another?

It’s not as though they’re completely sheltered from the really bad news.  Any fairy tale, even Disney versions, include abduction, death threats, being shut away in attics.  The Grimm Fairy Tales are notorious for their grimness, but those terrible stories have a fairy, or a witch, or an elf, or something to signal ‘this is pretend so it might get really gruesome, but you’ll know it’s pretend.’  With the Holocaust, there’s no such out.  Children will read stories of people who survived terrible trials, horrible losses and they’ll know they’re real.

Then again, what’s real?  As much as I knew about the Holocaust as a child, I didn’t really understand it. When our kids were just 4 they saw a painting of the rubble of 9/11 in a diner. There were firemen in the picture. My son was obsessed with firemen. They asked what had happened, we told them some 9 11 facts.  The next week my son showed the picture to my sister-in-law. “A lot of people died,” he told her.

“Yes,” she said.

“And they were all wearing underpants!”

Holocaust novels, stories of children of the holocaust, these  gripped me as a child because they made me cry and they scared me and terror and horror are useful emotions when it comes to confronting death. When my kids read them, they’ll probably experience some of the same feelings.  But that won’t be for a while.

Ruth Franklin ultimately decides her kids are too young to start reading holocaust books. She writes:

A story in which a young girl is separated from her parents and sent to an unknown destination, or another little girl comments casually that her older sister is “all that is left of our family,” is obviously unsuitable bedtime reading for little kids with active imaginations and a fear of the dark.

Franklin has a point.  Reading is an intimate act, even for young children.  Words nestle into their brains, images hang around, we have to consider all this carefully when we choose books for children. But eventually, we have to take the plunge and let them read.  Bad stuff happens, and sometimes amazing stories of love and survival result.

What do you think?  How do you talk about terrible events with your kids?  When would you let them read Holocaust novels?

Photo Credit: Tim Pierce

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