The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tough times out there? Here’s why reading with your kids is more important now than ever.

It may be a scary world out there sometimes, but books can help. (iStock)

Author Kate DiCamillo was in Orlando not long after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, when a teacher came up to her in a book signing line. “I didn’t know what to do, so I gathered the kids together and I read aloud to them,” she told DiCamillo. She read the children DiCamillo’s “The Tale of Despereaux,” the Newbery Medal-winning book filled with compassion and hope, and the children were rapt.

DiCamillo, recounting the meeting, choked up a bit: “We need stories now more than ever.”

It’s been a little tough to find the light in the midst of so much darkness lately, hasn’t it? Shootings, terror attacks, a nasty presidential campaign full of vitriol — all issues many parents are finding difficult to talk about with their children. These aren’t events we can ignore or gloss over; our children are noticing things aren’t quite right in the world.

I have received a lot of advice here about how to talk to children about scary news, explain this unusual election, and discuss why things don’t seem fair or just. But one thing that holds true: Reading to children from books that emulate how we want them to understand the world can show them how to be part of the solution.

“When you read these books aloud, you can tell from their expressions that they are empathetic in relating to these characters. They understand what the characters are feeling,” said Sharon Rawlins, youth services specialist at the New Jersey State Library and president of the Collaborative Summer Library Program.

And, so, like that teacher who found reading to be a balm, reading aloud can also be a lesson, as books always have been. Not only is reading to kids, no matter their age, important for their development, but it also helps us talk about bigger issues, think more deeply about other people’s feelings and how they can help solve problems, even if the children don’t realize that’s what we’re doing.

Why kids need to read about monsters and magic

Sure, our children aren’t as openly burdened by the news as we may be. Mine are still conning people out of 50 cents for a cup of lemonade, singing ’80s tunes with their friends in our basement and generally filling the air with laughter and chaos. But they know enough. In fact, my 6-year-old asked me whether we’d have to become refugees someday because of war. It always surprises me what they know and what they worry about.

And so I often think about books that might teach them what it means to be kind and empathetic, books that show them kids can get through tough situations, that kids can change the world or slay monsters. The books don’t have to specifically have those themes, but most children’s books show what it means to be strong, kind, a problem-solver.

Take DiCamillo’s latest lovely novel, “Raymie Nightingale,” in which a ragtag group of girls becomes friends. The girls’ underlying narratives aren’t light ones. One child is possibly being abused, another is dealing with the fact that her father left the family, and another is living in extreme poverty after her parents died. Yet they embody what it means to be true friends who care for people (and animals). They show what it means to be loyal and caring, even in the face of personal tragedy and darkness. They don’t judge one another for their quirks or their lot in life.

A girl from Australia recently wrote DiCamillo a letter, calling the novel a “hard, comforting book.”

“I think that’s what literature does,” DiCamillo said. “That thing of telling the truth and making the truth bearable. One truth? We can love each other. Another truth? It’s hard work.”

Taking the time to read with our children will not only help their reading skills, comprehension and vocabulary, but it will strengthen their emotional IQ as well. There’s an abundance of stories that provide comfort, show kids how they can be strong and allow them to realize that all’s not perfect in the world but that they can make it better.

Amy Joyce is the editor of On Parenting. Twitter @amyjoyce_berg and @OnParenting.

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