In April, I stopped mid-stroke on a rowing machine listening to a podcast at the gym. Children’s author and two-time Newbery Medal-winner Kate DiCamillo, on the “On Being” podcast, reflected on whether it was her job to preserve the innocence of her young readers, or to be frank with them about challenging topics.
“How do we tell the truth and make that truth bearable?” asked DiCamillo, who in 2018 wrote an essay for Time magazine, “Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Sad.” The young protagonists in her books (for grades three to six), which include “Raymie Nightingale” and “Because of Winn-Dixie,” face struggle and loss in their families. She’s a master at capturing the confusion of children kept in the dark.
DiCamillo noted that with “Charlotte’s Web,” E.B. White “trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we were not alone.”
I dropped the oars. My childhood had been clotted with secrets. My mother had an ongoing affair with a Catholic priest she met in our local parish in Armonk, N.Y. My father knew. They separated in 1971 when I was 7, my brother was 10, and my sister was 6. They didn’t tell anyone — not our teachers, not family, not friends. I believe my parents were trying to shield me and my siblings from a truth they saw as unbearable: My mother loved a priest, their marriage was over, and our family was broken.
As I sat on that rowing machine, DiCamillo’s words struck a match in the darkness, and suddenly I could see: Trying to protect us, my parents inadvertently conveyed that we were too fragile for the truth. Instead of resilience, they taught us fear.
When I was a child, I was unable to acknowledge what was happening in front of me as the priest stopped by our house for drinks and took my mother out to dinner. By the time I was 11, knowing there were things my parents could not talk about, I was divorced from my feelings, wildly analytical, a terrible cynic.
While I ordinarily write about visual art, not children’s books, I felt compelled to talk to DiCamillo. I’ve read three of her books since hearing the podcast, and even though I’m now 58, I deeply relate to her young characters and appreciate the courage and hope she instills in them. Stumbling in the dark, my parents were trying their best. So was I.
“Parents try to protect the children, and the children try to protect the parents,” DiCamillo told me over the phone from her home in Minneapolis.
I’ve been thinking about my parents’ silences as society reels through crisis after crisis: mass shootings, war, racist violence, COVID-19, a heating climate.
For me, art has always been a softer route to difficult truths. When I was 8, I read “The Last Battle,” C.S. Lewis’s final installment of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” When Narnia perished, I could experience sadness I was never given leeway to feel about my family.
Art and stories don’t make horrible things any less horrible. Instead, they can hold horror in a way that helps us reclaim our humanity. Engaging our senses, they bring us into our bodies and drop us into the tender places where we stow things that hurt us, where we are most vulnerable and human.
These are tough times for kids. The pandemic disrupted school. American teenagers are in the thick of a mental health crisis.
I spoke to Alexandra Kennedy, the executive director of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. “We’re all feeling so helpless right now,” she said.
Still, when it comes to talking about painful topics with kids, art and books are a way in.
Last year, the Carle Museum mounted “Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Children’s Books,” curated by author and editor Andrea Davis Pinkney. The exhibit didn’t flinch from challenging stories and imagery, such as fiery crosses on front lawns in Kadir Nelson’s “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans,” or activist Fannie Lou Hamer fending off police clubs in Ekua Holmes’s collage illustration for Carole Boston Weatherford’s “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement.”
It also included Bryan Collier’s illustration of a boy contemplating Black Lives Matter art in Tami Charles’s “All Because You Matter.”
“We ended with what is hopeful,” Kennedy said. “So kids can also see they can have an impact in the world.”
Planning for the show began around 2018, Kennedy said. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, “Picture the Dream” took on special intensity, sparking family conversations among visitors.
“I saw a father and his daughter, who was 7 or 8, old enough to be thoughtful but young enough to not understand the history,” said Kennedy. “She was asking a question. I saw him answer her briefly, in a minute or two, and she said, really loudly, ‘That’s not fair!’”
“It’s our job,” Kennedy said of that exhibition, “to help people, when the child is ready, when the parent is ready, to have those conversations.”
Sometimes the child is ready to have a difficult conversation, and the adults are not. That was true in my case.
“There are traumatic events happening,” said Melissa Higgins, vice president of programs and exhibits at Boston Children’s Museum, “and also topics that maybe the adults are just hesitant to discuss.”
Amid anti-transgender legislation, “Protect Trans Dreams: A Portrait Project” also has particular urgency. It features illustrator Noah Grigni’s paintings of trans children, ages 6 to 12, provides a resource area with books about gender, and invites visitors to draw and write about their own dreams.
While the overall response has been positive, Higgins said, “some folks let us know they don’t think it’s developmentally appropriate. But kids know about gender at a young age, and kids who are trans often know at a young age.”
The museum regularly offers ways to broach challenging topics. Elsewhere, there’s a reading area responding to the war in Ukraine.
“Stories can help you understand the perspective of someone else,” Higgins said. “Art can help us understand the feelings of others.”
In a perilous world, parenting is an act of faith. Making art is, too. Art gives shape to the full complexity of what it is to be human. It acknowledges how brutal the truth can be and how tender we are in its wake. It’s in that tenderness that we find our way across silences.
My mother resolutely refused to talk about her love and the breakdown of her marriage until she died in 2013, even after her lover left the priesthood and became my beloved stepfather. When she died, I still felt confused and angry about her long and continued silence. I had, in a way, taken up her shield.
Three years later, in 2016, I saw an exhibition of Andrew Wyeth drawings and watercolors. For 15 years, Wyeth painted his muse, Helga Testorf, and kept it a secret from his wife and business manager, Betsy Wyeth, and everyone else. When the secret came out in 1986, it made the cover of Time and Newsweek. The artist, who died in 2009, maintained that his relationship with Testorf was never physical, but he acknowledged he was smitten with her.
The works were intimate, revelatory. In every painterly caress, every line, every erasure, I sensed Wyeth savoring his muse’s mystery. I felt their relationship as a cherished flame illuminating both artist and subject. One that could easily be blown out. One that needed protection and privacy.
I could see why my mother kept her love a secret. In seeing that, I could finally see her.