As a young mother, I would sometimes read a little book to my children about a boy and a girl who planted a packet of seeds in some carefully prepared soil. They watered the ground and removed weeds and let the sun shine on the earth. The seeds sprouted and grew and bloomed into beautiful flowers. Eventually the plants produced seeds of their own that the children collected and saved to plant the next year. The book ended with the suggestion that if the reader wanted to know what happened the next year, just read the book again, substituting the seeds the children had collected for the packet they used the first year. The book said that the boy and the girl would have grown older and would eventually grow up. And, said the last sentence in the book, eventually so will you.
That last sentence always struck a chill note of foreboding in my heart. I would look at my tiny children with their pudgy hands and round cheeks and wispy hair and want to hold on to that precious time when the world seemed so sweet and full of the busyness of little children’s lives. But slowly, one day at a time, my children grew older. We moved to a new city, we made new friends, significant things in our lives changed, and now those days of reading on the old plaid couch seem very far away indeed. That slow, daily evolution of a baby to a young child to an older child and eventually into a grown person is the kind of change we all experience. It is growth, expansion, and it is completely natural. It is the essence of life, this unstoppable marching on of time.
But this is not the only type of change that people, even children, experience. Slow change can be expected, anticipated, and even longed for. Think, for example, of a teenager aching for a driver’s license, or of a little child standing on tip-toe, trying to be tall enough to ride the big rides at an amusement park. But there is another kind of change: unexpected, unwelcome, life-altering. This kind of change can come at any time and undermine seemingly every foundation.
Divorce is one example, or death, or an accident, or even a move from one place to another. It is hard enough for grownups to experience this type of change, but children are impacted as well. I remember that after a dear friend’s death had sent an earthquake through my life, I slowly picked up the pieces, finding little bright spots of truth and comfort along the way. After a couple of years I was feeling a bit stronger and less likely to be knocked down by a rogue wave of grief. One day I went to an evening gathering where a lot of children had also been invited. Maybe because I am a children’s librarian, I immediately felt very comfortable talking with the young people. Children don’t often linger on surface small talk, so soon we found ourselves discussing deep and important things. One girl who was about twelve years old mentioned that things were pretty much in turmoil at her home. She said this was the first time in quite awhile that she had done anything with her friends. Not wanting to pry, I just listened. Then she said that two days earlier, her mother had died.
I remembered how completely shattered I had felt two days, and even two weeks or two months, after my friend had died. I immediately felt the courage of this young woman. I knew intimately, after having walked that path of grief, some of what she was feeling. I mentioned this briefly and she understood. Then, for the rest of the evening, I listened as she told her story. She needed to talk and she had important things to say. I think the reason I went to that gathering was that this girl needed to have someone listen to her and provide an atmosphere where she could express those important things. I feel deeply honored that I was able to fill that role.
What does any of this have to do with children’s literature? I think that ultimately, books and stories can help ease any pain and bring comfort and stability to any life. Books and stories aren’t the only things, or even the best things, but they can help, and this help can be comforting and rejuvenating, and lasting.
As I said, books probably aren’t the best cure-all or balm during times of difficult, often unexpected or unwelcome, change. But they can help. In my opinion, one or two or maybe a few very true, very close family members or friends can be the best mortal help in times of trouble. When everything else is changing, such as during a family breakup or a tragic accident, a loving and supportive friend can make all the difference. I know because I have such friends. It is one of my life’s goals to give the kind of support I received during my hardest times.
But books are good, too. Books, the characters in books, the beloved friends who share their paper lives with us whenever we open their pages, can also give real help in times of upheaval. Familiar words, well-loved passages, inevitable and satisfying conclusions: these can all help immensely at times when all the rest of one’s life seems very unstable and inconclusive.
Reading can also be a way to rebuild some order in a chaotic world. Probably reading with someone else is best, a loving parent, for example, cuddling on a couch. Or I have also had the warm experience of sitting at my kitchen table while a good friend sat reading her book quietly across the room. We didn’t often talk, but just sharing quiet companionship was strengthening and comforting. But even if a person is alone, opening a book and reading allows the characters themselves to take part in reasserting order and familiarity into life.
A couple of weeks ago a good friend came to the library. She was worried because her two grandchildren who live with her were just rereading old books lately, books far beneath their reading levels. Knowing her well, and knowing her situation, I reminded her of what was happening in her grandchildren’s lives. The family has just sold their home and are preparing to move across the state to a new house, a new school, a new life. “Of course,” she said, “they are finding comfort in their old favorites!”
“Just let them read,” I said. “They’ll move on to new things soon enough.” She left, consoled.
Change is inevitable. Whether it comes all at once and shakes the foundations of one’s life or creeps up slowly, day by day, change always comes. But in the midst of change, especially during difficult and unexpected change, there are some things that can help make the effects of change less devastating and can even help joy return or, in the case of subtle daily change, stay strong all along. Loving family and true friends, I believe, are the best help in times of trouble. But books are important too. I count books as some of my own truest friends, as I’m sure many others do too.
Of course there are other things that help as well: exercise and being out in the fresh air, writing, listening to music, creating art, or digging deep into some other interest like math or science or chess. These are also options. But this is a literary blog, and my second line of defense, after human beings, is always books.
So, be for others the true friend you wish you had during difficult times, and I believe you’ll never be completely alone. Oh, and keep reading. That way you will always be adding new friends as well, And this kind of change—increasing, progressing, evolving, and deepening of relationships both literary and literal—is the best kind of change there is.