Throughout the history of children’s literature, children’s books have existed in large part to teach lessons. Not only do they teach children to be compliant, grateful, pious, and to work hard, children’s books socialise children. Today we might say they teach ’emotional literacy’.
“Everybody else on the block rides two-wheelers. Only babies ride tricycles.” She made this remark because she knew Howie still rode his tricycle, and she was so angry about the ribbon she wanted to hurt his feelings.Ramona the Pest, Beverly Cleary
Adult readers are left to work out motivations, ironies and desires for ourselves — we read between the lines. And this is true for young adult novels, too. But when children are learning to read they are also learning to recognise and name their feelings. Chapter books such as the Ramona series are good at doing that because they add that little extra bit of explanation.
This little bit of extra explanation can be found in children’s books for older readers, too:
“So you should have told me before, that’s what. You shouldn’t hide things like that from people, because they feel stupid when they find out, and that’s cruel.“Northern Lights, Philip Pullman (Lyra to her father)
When an adult is unable to identify their own feelings it’s called alexithymia.
Alexithymia is defined by:
- difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
- difficulty describing feelings to other people
- constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies
- a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style.
Alexithymia is found more commonly in the autistic population, but not all autistic people have trouble understanding and identifying emotions. In fact, only about one in two autistic people have trouble with this.
Likewise, a surprisingly high 10 percent of non-autistic individuals are alexithymic.
Reading and understanding complex and difficult emotions are skills that need to be learned by all of us. Another reason not to skip the chapter books!
While Beverly Cleary does it beautifully, it’s easy to name emotions badly.
I’ve noticed a tendency in children’s books to describe the feeling of an emotion without using the word commonly associated with that emotion. A classic example is repeated like a chorus through the picture book Hannah and the Seven Dresses.
Hannah, with her closet full of dresses handmade by her mother, breaks out in a sweat when she has to decide which to wear: “”Her face got hot. She shivered all over. Her knees went jiggly and her toes curled under.”from the Publishers Weekly review
These physiological reactions are described but not named.
The reason I advocate for naming as well as describing emotions in children’s stories is because attaching feelings to descriptive words is a learned skill, a difficult skill, alexithymia or no, and children’s writers needn’t shy away from it.