Reading for Survival

Kids in real trouble can often find in books the help that eludes them in real life. Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, tells how he overcame abject poverty and appalling circumstances to learn to read, gain an education and eventually rise to be one of the most influential leaders of his day.

Rather than defining himself by the life into which he was born, he strived for something different.

In those days, and later as a young man, I used to try to picture in my imagination the feelings and ambitions of a white boy with absolutely no limit placed upon his aspirations and activities. I used to envy the white boy who had no obstacles placed in the way of his becoming a Congressman, Governor, Bishop, or President by reason of the accident of his birth or race. I used to picture the way that I would act under such circumstances; how I would begin at the bottom and keep rising until I reached the highest round of success.

In later years, I confess that I do not envy the white boy as I once did. I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.

Sadly, many modern publications take the opposite approach, offering stories that empathize with kids in trouble rather than offering hope for a way out. For example, Stranger in Dadland tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who flies cross country to visit his divorced dad every summer and every summer hopes he’ll feel his dad’s love and acceptance. It’s a depressing true-to-life tale that accurately depicts life in a broken family.

When kids in crisis read, they want stories that offer the hope that obstacles can be cleared and joy can be found. They may find comfort in a character who shares their predicament, but only if he overcomes it. It’s unlikely they’ll be uplifted by a tale of woe that merely mimics their own situation.

What all kids crave in stories are tales of wonder, mystery, heroism, courage and other themes that stir the moral imagination. That’s not to say all good stories end “and they lived happily ever after” but that in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the characters learn how they should respond and in the end, do the right thing.

If children spend time reading stories like Red Badge of Courage, Little Women, The Chronicles of Narnia and even The World of Pooh, they will learn about traits of strong character — kindness, courage, grace, patience, honesty and more — that will help them should a real-life crisis arise.

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