Excerpts from a presentation by Robie H. Harris at the Reach Out and Read of Greater New York Conference
June 17, 2008 at Scholastic Press, NYC
Let’s think about what we know and what most all of us have experienced. We all know that our young children have and do express strong feelings. We all know that when a parent leaves for work or goes out for the evening or leaves a child at school or daycare, or while in the supermarket checkout line, or on the bus, at grandpa’s birthday party, or just before the goodnight cuddle and kiss, young children can often be heard blurting out one strong feeling or another ‘ expressions of love, joy, jealously, sadness, anger, loss, fear, worry, and sometimes even hate. These strong feelings, along with the questions and concerns young children have resonate deeply with me and fascinate me. These strong feelings also resonate with young children, and as many of you know, they are the kinds of subjects I choose to write about.
And of course, we all know that young children blurt out endless questions ‘ seemingly simple, questions such as: ‘Why is the sky blue?’ ‘Why did my guinea pig die?’ ‘Where did I come from?’ These kinds of questions have often have complicated answers. And adults both at home and at school and/or daycare are often caught by surprise when these normal and healthy feelings and questions pop out of a young child’s mouth. How do we deal with their powerful emotions? How do we answer their questions about where they came from and how they were made in the first place? Can a picture book help, and if so, how?
Do listen to what psychologist Alicia F. Lieberman, Ph.D. (UCSF) has to say about this in her indispensable and extraordinarily insightful book, THE EMOTIONAL LIFE OF THE TODDLER from a section of the book within a chapter called, PUTTING FEELINGS INTO WORDS. You may wonder why I am quoting from a book about toddlers when my picture books are for children who are older than toddlers. But the truth is that toddlers’ raw, uncensored, unfettered feelings pop out all the time, allowing me as a writer to see inside their emotions. These are the very same feelings and emotions our young children still have, and that we as adults still have, but may have gone underground. These strong feelings are the basis for the stories I write for young children.
Here are some of Dr. Lieberman’s words: ‘Children can understand language much earlier than they can speak it. When the parent is able to translate the ‘ toddler’s experiences into words of understanding, this helps to contain the child’s negative feelings and makes them bearable. In this sense, talking can represent relief from amorphous feelings because it puts some order into chaos.’
I find the words, ‘puts some order into chaos’ central to my writing for children and writing about the emotional life of children. And in some small way, I feel that children’s books can provide those words.
And it goes without saying that when a young child or young children and a trusted adult read a picture book together that deals with a strong emotions or a tough topic, or read a picture book that answers the child’s questions or concerns about a particular topic, most often most often the reading of a book is reassuring and comforting for the child ‘ not scary or worrisome as some do contend. Reading this type of story together also opens up a chance to have a conversation that can help a young child or a group of young children understand that his or her feelings, questions, or concerns are most always perfectly healthy and perfectly normal.
As a writer of children’s picture and nonfiction books, the decisions that I make about what words to put into a book are often very much the same decisions parents, grandparents, librarians, teachers, caregivers, health professionals, and clergy make as we talk with children about the ups and downs of daily life, and the emotional component of those ups and downs. Often I overhear words a young child is saying, and I quickly jot them down. I often start a book with actual language from a young child. But then I have to come up with a plot, a story. Words from a young child are not enough. Again, a good picture book, one that resonates with young children, just like any piece of fiction, needs a good plot and story. A quick aside, I am not talking about writing biblio-therapy here. Rather, I am talking about a good story, writing a good story, with a good plot.
Most often the words I jot down are strong emotional statements. And for certain, I have heard young children utter these three words, ‘I hate you!’
My challenge in writing the picture book, THE DAY LEO SAID ‘I HATE YOU!’ was this: Could I write a story in which the three words ‘I hate you!’ pop out a young child’s mouth, and at the same time through my story let young children know that feeling angry and expressing anger are part of the ups and downs of every person’s life, and that you are not a bad person if sometimes you feel angry and if sometimes you say angry words.
Finally a word about the extraordinary picture book artist, Molly Bang, who with such care and honesty understood completely what I was trying to say in my story about Leo and his mommy. Here’s how Molly became the artist for this book. One day, one of my young grandchildren walked into my office and said, ‘Grandma, can you read me this book, WHEN SOPHIE GETS REALLY, REALLY ANGRY?’ Then as my grandchild always does, she asked me, ‘Do you know the person who made the pictures for this book?’ And I told her, ‘Yes, it’s my friend Molly.’ And my grandchild said right back to me, ‘Well, you don’t have any pictures for your book yet, and you can’t draw very well, so your friend Molly should make the pictures for your LEO story that you read to me yesterday.’ My grandchild was 100% correct. And the rest is history. I told my wonderful editor of this book, Andrea Spooner, what my grandchild had said and she contacted Molly right away. Molly read the story right away and said, ‘Yes,’ to my editor. Lucky me! It turned out that Molly and I were on the same page about Leo ‘ that Leo was like all children, who from time to time get angry or very angry at the people they love the most. And even though the words they say may make the person they love feel mad, or sad, or angry ‘ they still love each other. Together, that is the story Molly and I tried to tell.