"Where do we start? Books." Rachel Noble talks about grief and loss and trusting the child on your knee.
SmallEmp: There have been some beautiful discussions recently in the wider world about children's literature and darkness, honesty and preserving innocence. Matt De La Pena asked in open letter to Kate DiCamillo in Time Magazine, “Is the job of the writer for the very young to tell the truth or preserve innocence?” In response Dicamillo wrote , Why Children's Books Should Be A Little Sad.
How do you think your book, Finn's Feather, fit's into this conversation?
Rachel Noble: Before I lost my son Hamish in 2012, I had very little experience with grief. I’d lost my elderly grandmother in her eighties and although I was deeply saddened by her loss, it was the natural way of things. Those who come before us, die before us. Her life was long and well-lived and I had compiled memories that I could refer to in her absence. It was terribly sad but not necessarily unexpected. My death was not something I needed to think about and I was not prepared for trauma in anyway. Instead, I lay awake at night worrying about what Kindy to send Hamish to. It feels ridiculous to me now, of course. But until you are faced with the worst, it’s difficult to explain the depth of the loss of a child. It’s impossible in fact. Like many people said to me, after Hamish died, ‘I can’t even imagine what it feels like. I can try but I can’t bear it.’
So, should we try and communicate trauma and loss to children? Doesn’t it go against our very nature? I admit, I’ve had moments of ‘lawnmower parenting’. It’s natural to want to create a smooth path for our babies. We don’t want them to feel pain. We don’t want them to face loss. However, after our family experienced the worst, I now feel very differently about how we talk about death and topics surrounding death and trauma. I believe our children deserve to talk about these things with us. We owe them to open conversations about hard things. Through building emotional resilience in our children, I believe we are doing them a favour. Protecting them does a disservice when the hard things do pop up in life as they inevitably do.
The question that follows is how do we introduce these topics and open these conversations with our little ones. Where do we start? Books. Fictional stories about characters facing trauma or perplexing life situations give children the opportunity to ask questions safely, intimately and without startling us parents into dismissing them or giving them answers that don’t give credit to their curious minds. It is when I’ve had a book spread across my lap and my boys tucked into my sides that I’ve been faced with big life questions. We talk about the characters in the book, what thoughts they may have had, what they did next? What were they feeling? How do you feel about it? We not only read the stories to introduce the concept but then we poke it, lift the flaps, find the meaning for the child we have on our knee.
There was something missing in grief literature for children. There are some beautiful books out there delving into loss but I found many too arbitrary or about characters getting old and the natural cycle of life. But what about the unexpected? What about shock? How do we navigate those even harder topics? FINN’S FEATHER is the story of a child grieving a sibling. It was a big undertaking. Fortunately, I didn’t realise it at the time, I was too fixated on the necessity of a book like this and the importance of the book in the story of our family; a book in honour of Hamish. It came to me in a sudden flash and I knew the second it landed in my brain, that it was the story I had been looking for. Enchanted Lion recognised its importance quickly and Zoey Abbott took it to new levels with her gentle, illuminating illustrations.
Fortunately, FINN’S FEATHER has been quickly recognised as an important book in the conversations around grief for children. However, what very few critics have acknowledged, is how valuable FINN’S FEATHER can be for ALL children. It is not traumatic or dark but gentle and emotional. I’ve read the book to children in the US and Australia and I’ve been humbled by their gentle and curious response. Zoey and I met an 80 year-old lady in Mississippi who clutched FINN’S FEATHER in her arms as she told us about the brother she had lost when she was four. How he was never spoken of again and how it had clutched at her heart as he was erased from her family’s memory. ‘Oh how I wish my mother had read me a book like this,’ she said. That moment will stay with me forever.
It is my belief that we should fill our bookshelves with books of light and shade, with humour and philosophy, with inspiration and new ideas. This is how we raise emotionally resilient, empathic children - give them the full rainbow of books and trust that with time and maturation, these little minds will develop into the deep thinkers of tomorrow.
Rachel Noble is an author from Queensland, Australia. Her first picture book, Finn's Feather, was published this summer by Enchanted Lion Books. Visit Rachel online at: http://rachelnobleauthor.com