[Role Models and Peers]7:30 AM
With children’s books, there are generally two categories in which the characters fall: Role Model or Peer. Role Models loom rather larger than life; they usually have no personal flaws—or just benign or imaginary; and they are helpless and patient in their affliction or active and brave in the hour of need. The thing you remember most about them is their good attributes. They are inspirational.
Peers are about the stark opposite. Their stories center on their faults, their contrived problems, their conflicts with other people. These are modern, more psychologically-driven stories and center on outcasts, perverts and “average schoolkids.” They are designed to resonate with their young audiences—perhaps to challenge but more often than not to commiserate.
One might try to argue that Role Models are unrealistic and Peers are realistic and thus more beneficial to children—don’t buy that. Both are unrealistic. Both have pros and cons.
With Role Models, many parents feel safe leaving their children—no worries about bad attitudes, foul language or anything outside their comfort zone. Parents should not feel guilty or narrow-minded about offering these books—especially to younger children.
The downside of Role Models is that the stories tend towards moralism and the Role Models themselves are flat, with no character development. True literature must operate with round characters, for literature is heavily involved in analyzing good and evil. Characters—real characters—deal with sin. If the extent of a child’s experience is with trite, moralistic characters only, he misses out on grappling with subtle messages, sticky situations and applying Biblical truth—all in a controlled environment. This is an overly simplistic view of life and literature.
On the other end of the spectrum, Peers tote that they understand life, that they shy not away from the risqué, that they develop broad-minded readers. They have the floor on “literary” children’s fiction—take a peek at the recent Newbery Award winners. And they do have a point that they deal with heavier, “more realistic” issues. They aren’t afraid of addressing sin; but they do have problems calling it by name.
My main beef with Peers is that they load down innocent minds with the weight of the world and forget that children are flexible: they are molded, and not yet firm enough to mold. Along with this real problem, Peers do not necessarily provide a “real-life,” relevant buddy for their readers. Children are usually not as introspective, philosophical, narcissic and pessimistic as the heroes of Peers’ books usually are. Children will always retain a sense of innocence and ignorance. A constant stream of depressed pre-teens fits the culture’s idear of childhood, not reality. This kind of fiction does not alleviate the world of its burdens nor inspire children to combat evil. It makes them complacent and overly familiar with things they ought to grapple with.
That said, a careful balance of books is needed. Healthy dealance of Peers will stretch a child—but the idea is stretching, not breaking. Similarly Role Models must be a means of building, not bricking in. But when the rubber meets the road, I’d rather err on the side of caution and be called a prude.
• Elsie Dinsmore series
• books by G. A. Henty
• almost anything published before the mid-1900s
• Newbery Medal winners
• Bridge to Terabitha
• Jacob Have I Loved
• almost anything “notable” published from 1960s onward