Brain research tells us traumatic experiences at anytime in our life (war, death, horrific accidents) affect our worldview. Those experiences can form a prism through which we view the world. We can become more anxious, more fearful and less self-confident. When we operate from fear and anxiety, we don’t make the best choices, either for ourselves or others.
The brain reacts to second-hand traumatic events on television, at the movies or while reading a book, very much the same way it does to first-hand trauma. So why load children’s books with physical trauma and horrific events?
“Your character must face real peril. Be explicit.” That was a comment by a reviewer of my latest manuscript. The editor include a suggested reading list of books fairly high in peril content. These books really did put the major characters in peril. One was so full of peril that the protagonist, in this case a dog, faced certain death at least three times in each chapter. Given the book was almost two hundred pages long, this was no mean feat. My willing suspension of disbelief was strained and the book gave me bad dreams. Keep in mind, these are books written for children.
Two other books I read had considerable, but not so highly concentrated peril. One, an historical novel set in turn of the century Ireland, featured a horse. It was not just the story of a type of horse that played an important role in rural Ireland, but also an interesting account of a period of Irish history.
The third book featured a dog who experienced what was to her, and to me, puzzling and cruel behavior by the humans around her. It was a book designed to describe the characteristics of a particular breed of dog. Overall, both books were well done. Fortunately, all three had relatively happy endings.
It has been said that stories without conflict and peril are simply travel logs; but how much physical peril can children comprehend and how much should they be exposed to, even if it is second-hand?
Danger and peril is a part of life, but it’s only a part, not the whole story. Children need to feel secure in order to develop the necessary self-confidence to function as effective adults. A steady diet of fear (Zombies, Transformers, Godzilla) is about as healthy for the human psyche as a diet consisting exclusively of donuts and sugared cereal is beneficial to physical health.