Kids are phenomenal creatures. They live life in full emotional expression, without the internal boundaries that come tumbling in the moment they become socially aware and "responsible". Children inherently know of the depth and boundlessness of their being – and how life is never black and white.
The other wonderful thing about children, even very young children and babies, is their ability to absorb subtlety and nuance. I think we truly underestimate this ability, and as an author and illustrator of children's titles, I see books time and time again, whacking kids over the head with the "obvious" stick, hammering them with morals and dumbing things down to a perceived "lower" level that simply doesn't exist.
I frequently speak to and read books with early childhood poppets and primary school students, and the most enlightening thing I've learnt after all these years, is how clever they are. How centred young children are in their being. How inherent understanding plumbs depths that we quickly lose connection with as we age.
This is especially so when it comes to emotional depth and expression, and it's only as kids grow older that we begin to see a penchant for separating and labelling emotional responses, and even succumbing to those labels.
"Oh, he's just shy." "She's so outgoing." "She's really quiet." Be wary of the label – for it really does set children in stone.
For all their inherent ability for emotional expression, children don't yet have the mental skills and life experience to delineate and control rampant emotion. All children, especially those who find it hard to express or harness their emotions, can certainly benefit from books that focus on identifying their feelings, though many of these books still do it in a really definitive way.
Most concept books feature happy, sad, angry, excited, surprised. But there are so very many ways to feel sad. Countless ways to feel happy. And both happy and sad emotional responses can also be combined with other emotions and spatial concepts until there really are no labels available to describe them. Sadness could be tinged with a sliver of regret and a pinch of loss. Happiness could be touched with a sprinkling of anticipation and a smattering of purple.
Books have always been a powerful way to reach the hearts and minds of children. I simply adore books that bypass "obviousness" – and this is the type I strive to write. Very young children have an innate sense of subtlety and an understanding of nuance that cannot be underestimated. Even if they can't consciously express that understanding ... it's there. And the use of nuance in picture books hits kids a lot deeper than more flagrant narratives.
In our picture book Smile Cry, illustrator Jess Racklyeft and I explored the subtle nuance in emotion that comes with both smiling and crying. A balloon-pop cry, for example, is much different to a goodbye-cry. An ate-all-the-pies smile is much different to a what-to-do-now smile (when we accidentally break something). While it's important for little ones to understand the base concepts of feeling either happy or sad, exploring the innumerable ways one singular emotion – say, happiness – can be felt, makes for a more cohesive, self-aware and centred child.
Just as each and every child is unique in their emotional and mental construct, each child is then subject to environmental and familial influences that can seriously affect the way they process and deal with their emotions. And alas, many children suffer conditions that are directly related to blocked emotional response. The fear response, for example, has its roots firmly entangled in anxiety and depression, sleep and learning issues, and countless physical ailments.
I relish writing stories for kids because I believe a love of story not only opens children to full literacy, entertains, educates and enchants – it also sets them free. Books that focus on emotions are a priceless way to explore feelings in both a home and school setting, and for kids to learn how to express and understand the way they feel. And most importantly, that these feelings are never black and white.
As we well know, life is never black and white. The shades of grey are innumerable. And if addressing life subtleties can help very young children become more open, compassionate and aware human beings – if we can help them stay in touch with their childlike Being well into adulthood, then I'm all for grey. And silver, smoke, slate, stone, ash, dove and flannel…
Tania McCartney is an award-winning Canberra author, illustrator, editor, the founder of Kids' Book Review and a long-time champion of juvenile literacy. She has been an ambassador for the National Year of Reading and is a current ambassador of the Chief Minister's Reading Challenge. Her latest children's picture book is Smile Cry (EK Books $19.99).