Fearsome Fiction

Imagine curling up with your pajama-clad six-year-old and reading him the latest bedtime story. You're sure the book is good, because it just won the prestigious Caldicott Award, given to the best-illustrated children's book of the year. But if you bought one recent winner, your child might not sleep for weeks. I'm talking about a picture book called Smoky Night, a story about the Los Angeles riots. The book represents a trend in children's fiction to depict the chaos of modern life in all-too-graphic detail. Smoky Night is told through the voice of a young boy named Daniel, who finds himself hurled into a nightmare world of urban violence—of gangs that roam the city, smashing windows and looting stores. Terrified adults run screaming as rioters torch Daniel's apartment building. Boy, that ought to put your six-year-old right to sleep. And then there's a recent Newbery Medal winner, given by the American Library Association to what's judged the most distinguished contribution to children's literature. Last year's winner was a book called Walk Two Moons. It features three children who lose their respective mothers to death, abandonment and mental illness. By the final chapter, author Sharon Creech has also killed off a beloved grandmother and a whole bus load of other people. Talk about Grimm fairy tales. Some writers think all this death and destruction is a good thing. They're convinced that children's books ought to reflect all the chaos kids see in their daily life. But the authors of a book about teaching character to children disagree. Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe and William Kilpatrick are authors of a manual called Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values through Stories. The authors believe that children need the security of knowing they live in an ordered world—especially kids whose own homes lack sense and order. As these authors explain: "There['s] . . . a danger in trying to accommodate fiction to every new social malady [because] after a while, no one remembers what a stable family looks like." Or a stable society, for that matter. Kids who live in fractured families or in nightmare neighborhoods already know about the ugly side of life—about divorce and abandonment and even riots. What these kids desperately need is "a picture of life that conveys both depth and normality." They need stories in which "evil is punished, virtue is rewarded . . . effort pays off, and riddles are solved," Kilpatrick and the Wolfes write. That's why Newbery and Caldicott winners from decades past are still so popular—books like Island of the Blue Dolphin, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. These stories do portray a moral order that deeply appeals to kids. But modern award-winners like Smoky Night and Walk Two Moons prove that parents can't judge the quality of a book by the award plastered on its cover. You and I need to carefully examine every book we buy for our children and grandchildren. We need to make sure we're giving them stories that portray a world filled with order and meaning. Not one of meaningless chaos.


Chuck Colson


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