[Editor’s note: Our friends at Square Halo books have a brand new collection of essays called Wild Things and Castles in the Sky. Together, these essays form one cohesive guide for choosing books for children. Today, we’re grateful to share with you an essay from the book written by Ashley Artavia Novalis, in which she demonstrates how stories of suffering provide safe, creative spaces to experience empathy and process pain.]
When we were young, my sister and I couldn’t wait for our weekly trips to the public library. While our mother worked on the library’s computers, we set off to work of our own. Wandering through the rows of books, starting in historical fiction and then rounding the corner through fantasy and adventure, I took careful inventory before making my week’s selection. And each week, I ended my search in the same spot.
After I had chosen a few new books for the week, I would circle back to the bookshelf closest to a large, round window facing the main road. My finger would scan a few rows up from the bottom and land on a gold-foil spine that read The Easter Story. This beautifully illustrated book by Brian Wildsmith tells the story of Jesus’ last week of life on Earth from the perspective of a little donkey that carries him around Jerusalem. I checked out The Easter Story every chance I had. As a sensitive and creative child, I was captivated by the colors and details of Wildsmith’s illustrations and moved by watching the donkey observe the final days of this good man’s life (I had never learned the story of Jesus’ death, so I was especially amazed). I resonated with the little donkey, encountering this terrible thing happening to this fascinating person in a strange, unknown world. Tracing my fingers across the gold foil parts of each picture, I would turn to the page of Jesus being put to death on the cross and cry.
Thinking back, I’m sympathetic toward that young, eager reader. The story of Jesus’ death means something much different to me now, but at the time, I was a child making sense of the hard things in the world around me, and this story of injustice, death, and betrayal gave me an avenue to do that. From an early age, I was aware of the profound impact storytelling could have.
Having spent nearly a decade working with children across professional and social settings, books have been some of my greatest resources. I have particularly come to value stories that depict suffering and hardship in deeply honest or creative ways. I’ve seen these kinds of books generate meaningful discussions, encourage empathy, and provide safe, creative spaces to process pain.
From the time children learn to sing about Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall and how none of his friends were able to help him, they are acutely aware that there are cracks in creation.Ashley Artavia Novalis
Understandably, we sometimes hesitate to introduce books with heavy topics to children, or we desire to limit their exposure to stories about loss, death, fear, or poverty. We would love to be able to protect them from some of the darker realities of this world. While age-appropriateness is certainly important here, stories of adversity are a meaningful part of a child’s library and not as far from the child’s imagination as we would think. From the time children learn to sing about Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall and how none of his friends were able to help him, they are acutely aware that there are cracks in creation. Beautiful children’s stories do not hide that truth or offer cheap fixes. Instead, these stories give room for children to explore the heaviness of pain and the goodness of hope. The Christian Scriptures also give us examples of honest stories that don’t shy away from brokenness. They present us with opportunities to work through the tension of the beauty of creation and its fall—to wrestle with the permeating effects of sin and the reality of hope. Good stories of adversity give children a framework that helps them make sense of the world around them.
From picture books to young adult series, stories of adversity are not limited to a single genre or age level, and even the term “adversity” could refer to anything from divorce to deep sadness, from bullying to homelessness, injustice, disease, or abuse. Often the Christian tradition generalizes these kinds of life experiences as “suffering” or “brokenness;” I use all of these terms interchangeably here. My goal is not necessarily to make a case for which specific elements make a good book on suffering, but to show what a good story that includes suffering does for the child—how it can teach, encourage, guide, and enrich a child’s mind and life for years to come.
In the last few years, childhood development icons like Fred Rogers and Margaret McFarland have resurfaced in the spotlight. This well-deserved recognition, along with decades of research in the childhood development field, has brought us to a place where the importance of social-emotional learning is increasingly on the minds of those who love, teach, or serve children. In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the child’s mind was at the center of every decision: the way Mister Rogers entered the room, stared into the camera, or paused to listen.
In the memorable episode about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, there is a noticeable shift in the neighborhood. Daniel Tiger and Lady Elaine have a sincere conversation about what “assassination” means, and how the characters in the neighborhood are all coping differently with the scary news. “When you feel sad, sometimes you don’t feel like a picnic,” Lady Elaine reassures Daniel Tiger when he just wants to stay home. Another somber moment happens when Lady Elaine explains to X the Owl that thinking about doing a bad thing, like shooting someone or getting very, very angry about something, is different than doing it. This episode is a masterclass in how families can help children grieve and serves as a prime example of one of Mister Rogers’s key philosophies behind the neighborhood: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”
In the same way, good stories of adversity provide a language for suffering. Children experience emotions deeply; just like adults, they have many ways of naturally expressing those emotions. Unlike most adults, however, they are still in the process of developing the ability to express themselves through words. This relationship between language and emotion is a key component in social-emotional health, and children’s books are an abundant resource here. This can be learned through metaphors (Harry feeling “as though he too were hurtling through space” after watching someone he loves being murdered in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), illustrations (a monster following a boy around in Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster), or mindfulness of the body (Digory’s “lump in his throat and tears in his eyes” in The Magician’s Nephew).
Play—often referred to as the work of children—is crucial in developing and practicing this kind of language. I would suggest that reading is a type of play that encourages imagination, requires participation, and creates a playground (in the pages of a book) for rehearsing their growing emotional vocabulary. And in providing children with the ability to put words to their big emotions, we offer a way to begin to manage them. When Digory, on the journey given to him by Aslan in The Magician’s Nephew, is preoccupied with thoughts of his sick mother, he blurts out, “But please, please—won’t you—can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Aslan responds, “My son, my son. I know. Grief is great.” Digory’s worry and grief is not solved in his conversation with Aslan, but through this acknowledgement and shared language of suffering, he becomes more certain he can complete his journey with “new strength and courage.”
This scene shows us another way stories of adversity teach children: they provide a way forward, a means of hope. This isn’t to say that every story with hardship or evil must have a happy ending where each conflict is neatly resolved. On the contrary, those kinds of easy fixes can lead to unhelpful or misguided conclusions about the realities of our world, thus minimizing the effects of suffering. True hope doesn’t overlook suffering; it perseveres in the presence of it.
In some stories, this hope is obvious, like a man once dead coming back to life or peace being restored to a kingdom. Other times, hope comes through more subtle images, like the flags hanging through the streets at the end of the Second World War in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. The reader is left with questions unanswered, and this is where hard conversations about the world begin: where are all the people who had to flee for safety? How will the Jews be treated now that the war is over? Will their country be able to rebuild, and will life be like it was before?
We are often tempted to avoid these conversations with children because we want to keep thoughts of the evil in our world away from the child’s imagination. But the child’s imagination is one of the first avenues through which they process those evils and think through those unanswered questions. By providing hope and a way forward amidst adversity, good books add to the child’s imagination the idea that, as G. K. Chesterton writes, “these limitless terrors [have] a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies . . . that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”
Good stories of adversity also build self-awareness, develop understanding for others, and give opportunity for empathy and neighborly love. Stories that reflect hardships or pain that a child can personally relate to can help build crucial identity and belonging, while seeing another’s perspective of suffering grows a child’s ability to sympathize with an experience unlike theirs. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop asserts that the best books go even further and ask for participation from the reader. Rather than simply looking into another’s world, a child is invited to enter in, to feel as another would feel, and, I would add, to respond in neighborly love. Though this essay is far from a comprehensive list of the benefits of including stories with adversity in a child’s library, the most meaningful stories that I have read share these common threads: they provide language for suffering, give a picture of hope, and encourage empathy for one’s neighbor.
The Christian Scriptures themselves demonstrate this framework for responding to the cracks in creation. Through the psalms, we’re given ample language for suffering: from “My tears have been my food day and night” (Ps. 42:3) to “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?” (Ps. 10:1), God constantly provides a way forward for his people, a hope for the future through the promise of all being made new. We are given individual stories of suffering throughout biblical history that we can see ourselves reflected in or use to understand others. Finally, the reader of the Scriptures is challenged to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) and “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). And God enters into our pain with us: in the story of God, the response to all the suffering, violence, doubt, and death is the incarnation of Jesus.
As participants in the incarnation and those given the sacred task of stewarding the imagination of children toward goodness, truth, and beauty, we gain much when we invest in stories of adversity that help children make sense of the world around them.
Curated and edited by Leslie and Carey Bustard with Théa Rosenburg, Wild Things and Castles in the Sky explores topics like classic literature, imagination, art history, race, poetry, young adult novels, faith, and more. The aim and hope is that these essays would encourage parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends to share the power of a good story with a child they love.
To learn more about the book from its editor, listen to Leslie Bustard’s conversation with Jonathan Rogers on The Habit Podcast.
Ashley Novalis has spent a decade working in early childhood settings through non-profits and public school programs. Most recently, she works in child and adolescent behavioral health through a local counseling agency. Ashley is passionate about mental health advocacy, social justice, and good empanadas. She lives with her husband, Joshua, in the East Side of Lancaster City, PA, where they love reading books, watching Netflix, and attempting to garden.