Crime and picture books

At the library my five-year-old son pulled out a beautifully illustrated book of an old steam train. He had ridden in a few that still run for tourists. It was the kind of activity we did as a family, and he seemed to not mind these less than exciting trips. It was a little disconcerting for him to see illustrations in the library book of an old steam train being attacked by Cheyenne, and one of the workers lying by the side of the track pierced by arrows. The train was forced off of the track in a wreck as the braves celebrated. So, he simply disregarded the message that the author of Death of the Iron of Horse was trying to get through to 5 to 8-year-old children. He assumed it was a made up story; much like Where the Wild Things Are. Otherwise, his family would not have risked riding on steam engines.

In first grade my son was supposed to read a book on Thanksgiving and give a report, as was every other child in his class. We didn’t get to the library early enough to have any choice. We ended up with an illustrated grade school book mostly about King Philip’s war. In 1612 Massasoit was an honored guest at the first Thanksgiving feast. A little more than fifty years later his son Philip, the Wampanoag chief, engaged in one of the bloodiest conflicts between Native Americans and the British settlers. It concluded with Philips’ severed head being paraded through the streets.

Even as an adult, there is no way to comprehend the trauma of war without experiencing it—something I don’t want children to ever have to do. Without this experience we read the frightening part of books, even non-fiction books, as exciting events from which we are safe. Many adults still do that with a steady diet of murder mysteries and thrillers.

In first grade, my son still saw war as a game played on the computer. I discussed with him how much of this story should be described in class. It ended up being very little of it. There was no reason to have his first grade classes terrified of Native Americans. Sometimes, I wondered if people who determined which books went into the children’s section in our town library were aware of the greater representation of violence depicted in the picture books for that group.

That is a difficulty trying to lure in children with lovely illustrations to prep them for ideas that they simply are not ready to comprehend. Children understand make-believe long before they grasp the meaning of atrocities. However, once children have even a vague grasp of the violence that does exist, what happens then? Will children still refuse to acknowledge what is occurring? Or will they accept violence as something normal? 

I tried to find facts about the result of exposing children to violence in books before they were ready. There was no consensus. The only related research indicated that grade-school aged children growing up in a neighborhood with higher crime rates preferred a higher level of violence in books. Those growing up in relatively safer places, did not want to read stories with as much violence. This could be a preference to read about situations that reflected one’s own life. We often talk about author’s writing what they know. Children seem to prefer to read what they know.

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