03 May 2022 Share
In the wake of recent global events, author Nicola Davies discusses how stories can help children explore and deal with difficult issues
When I was very little, my mum had breast cancer and back in the sixties it was a much more scary diagnosis than it is now. My father and my older siblings desperately wanted to protect me - the baby of the family - from the news about Mum. But, of course, no one could protect me from the fact that she vanished when she went into hospital, or from the atmosphere of fear that pervaded the household. No one explained to me what it was all about. The result was that I was a small child alone with an inexplicable trauma.
That sense of deep isolation has never left me. But its effects have not been wholly negative. It has fuelled my passion for writing about the most difficult things, for the smallest of children. I absolutely believe that if a child might experience it, then it is the business of children’s literature to talk about it.
This hasn’t always made me popular with publishers or parents. Publishers want jolly things that sell and parents want happy things to read to their kids. Don’t get me wrong. I love a joyful read about fluffy bunnies, or monsters that fart - these books are important too; we all need to laugh, to escape, to imagine, to play. But if these are all that’s available to children, they get the message that talking about their own difficult experiences and feelings is not OK. And that isn’t good for long-term mental health and well-being.
It’s easy to argue that children should not be shielded from knowledge of the universal vicissitudes of living - birth, illness, death, separation are things none of us can avoid. But what about war? Do we really need to talk with our children about that? Yes, we do ,and for many reasons. But let’s deal here with the purely practical ones: in our 24/7, ever-connected society you simply can’t prevent your children from hearing about this stuff. And if you aren’t open to their questions about it, you risk them knowing just enough to get the wrong end of the stick, and to think that the whole situation is so very scary that it can’t even be spoken about. Even if it were possible to cut your children off from hearing about the world, when do you propose to end that “shielding”? It will be quite a shock for your eighteen-year-old to discover that the world isn’t the Disney-esque paradise you have presented to them.
So, how do you talk to your children about Ukraine (or, for that matter, about COVID and about climate change)? I would say that the first important thing is that you do talk, that you don’t simply allow them to glean information, and then leave them alone with what they have heard, seen or been told. You find out about it, together. Maybe make it a new part of your day that you watch the news together (CBBC’s Newsround has been doing a great job of presenting difficult things for children for many years) and then talk about it; when I say “talk” here, what I really mean is, listen. Listen. Hear what your child understands and what they don’t, help to clear up misapprehensions where you can; listen to their feelings. Look for books and films that tell stories about wars, and that help to put today’s facts in the context of longer time frames of whole lives. My book, The Day War Came, illustrated by Rebecca Cob, was inspired by the Syrian war but it can be helpful in explaining why refugees are now streaming over the border into Poland and why other countries need to help out. Published in partnership with Help Refugees and endorsed by Amnesty International, the picture book shows the journey of a child forced to become a refugee when war destroys everything she has ever known.
Be calm. Don’t share your own grown-up, wider anxieties, and look for positives in the short and long term (such as the Ukrainian couple getting married on a military blockade or a faster shift to more sustainable power or the brave Russian demonstrator with the plaque “Hug Me If You Hate The War”). Don’t be afraid of difficult questions. Part of your child’s development as a human is to learn that there are some things that just don’t have an answer - some things that don’t make any kind of sense.
And then move on. Draw your child’s attention back to the small, enjoyable things in their own lives. It’s important that they - that we - understand that life goes on, and that something good, something joyous - however small - can light up a day. Do something pleasurable and together, make toast, go for a walk, bath the dog, draw a picture, show your child that you delight in their company (this is where the fluffy bunnies and the farting monsters come into their own).
Many of us have learned over the last two years what really matters to us. We have learned that walking barefoot in the grass is better than a new pair of shoes we didn’t really need. We have learned that looking at the sky through blossom, hearing a bird sing, or staring at the waves, can calm our minds and our bodies. We have learned that being with our families, our friends, the people who we love, is the greatest treasure in our lives, to be cherished above all things. In short, we have learned better priorities.
Now, while war rages in Ukraine, and the world enters perhaps long years of storms, it is vital that we show our children those changed and improved priorities. That things and stuff are not what matters, but noticing the beauty of the natural world does; that purpose and meaning come not from the size of your salary but from sharing and helping; that the deepest pleasures of being human lie in compassion, company and love. We cannot make the world perfect, but we can show our children how to live in it with heart and soul and courage, and so, together, build a better future.
Nicola Davies is the author of more than 50 books for children: fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in more than 10 different languages and has won major awards in the UK, US, France, Italy and Germany.