02 July 2006

Hunting for that crucial "sense of hope"

If I ever need a "sense of hope," I know where to hunt for it: in children's books. If you listen to lots of authors and illustrators talking about their work, it seems like no book can go without.

Author Jane Kurtz:

"So I'm happy if readers take away a sense of hope--and a better understanding of what life is like in different time periods and different places from the ones they themselves inhabit."
Author-illustrator Jan Brett:
"She tries to impart a sense of hope and a sense that children are capable of triumphing over problems."
Author Marty Kaminsky:
"Looking to instill a sense of hope in America's youth, Kaminsky chronicles the lives of 15 athletes who overcame adversity to achieve their goals."
Author Janet Lee Carey:
"The trick is to face the story problem head on and still give the reader a sense of hope."
Author Jenny Robson:
"Jenny believes that a children's book 'must give a sense of hope, of some faith in the future, some belief in some basic goodness'."
Does anyone look for a "sense of hope" with more avidity than children's writers and artists? Of course! Reviewers, critics, and those all-important award committees seem to emphasize that quality even more.

Newbery committee head Susan Faust on Cynthia Kadohat's Kira-Kira:
"What's really compelling here is the quietude of the book, in that there's both pathos and humor, and I think the book kind of radiates a sense of hope from the inside out."
School Library Journal on Karen Hesse's Letters from Rifka:
"Countering the misery and uncertainty are the main character's courage, determination, and sense of hope as well as the happy ending."
Education World on Rodman Philbrick's The Last Book in the Universe:
"It is worth noting that despite the dismal world of the Urb to which Spaz returns, there is a sense of hope at the end of the book."
Resource Library Magazine on illustrator David Diaz:
"Two themes appear consistently in books illustrated and/or written by David Diaz: a sense of hope--even when dealing with social issues fraught with controversy--and a strong and kind mother figure."
Publishers Weekly on author Sharon Flake:
"Sharon Flake raises important issues about self-awareness for African Americans and leaves readers with a sense of hope."
The Governor-General's Award committee on Tim Wynne-Jones's The Maestro:
"This sensitive, imaginative young man has tremendous, strength which invests the conclusion with a tangible sense of hope."
Leonard S. Marcus on author-illustrator Ezra Jack Keats:
"His work has a core of honesty, always leaving children with a sense of hope."
Kirkus on Julie A. Swanson's Going for the Record:
"...this intense story portrays a father’s death in painful detail, balanced with a sense of hope."
The ALAN Review on author John H. Ritter:
"So, what memories, experiences, and events serve as a backdrop for John H. Ritter as he paints literary images that later become powerfully written novels? Novels that not only address our human imperfections, but also leave readers with a sense of hope."
CM Archive on Monica Hughes's A Handful of Seeds:
"Hughes, an experienced story-teller, gently leads the reader through the story, imparting a sense of hope to the younger reader newly faced with this ugly side of the world."
Disability Studies Quarterly takes issue with one book, Jan Needles's My Mate Shafiq, for not offering young readers enough hopefulness :
"...the ending of Needle's novel shows 'hope' at a low premium. 'Realism' is identifiable with sadness. The sense of hope is lacking in this novel: the children 'cope,' but as regards disability there is no sense of any greater understanding, inner growth or liberation. The disabled mothers are a 'problem,' although sympathetically viewed."
(How, I wonder, is having a mentally disabled mother not a "problem" for a young child?)

Myself, I got nothing against hope. I like it. There's probably a "sense" of it in most of the fiction I write, too. So why do I bring up this pattern?

First, I never see the "sense of hope" yardstick being applied to literary fiction for adults. People don't say that Graham Greene or Margaret Atwood or Ralph Ellison should always leave their readers with a sense of hope. What if you were M. T. Anderson and you want to express the attitude: "Yes, I do have hope. Not for the human race--we're doomed--but for the Insect Overlords who will follow us"? (This is from Anderson's Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor acceptance speech for Feed. I quote the version of Ayelle's journal, which is a pretty good match for my own memory of the event. In a better world, this speech would be on YouTube.)

Second, I question whether it's an appropriate goal for so many stories--indeed, the way some people address it, for the entire field of children's literature. For example, i
n 2003 Gary D. Schmidt questioned whether the "sense of hope" approach is appropriate for books about the Holocaust. His review essay in The Lion & the Unicorn says--
"When a child reads a book about the Holocaust--particularly in a pedagogical setting--the adults around that child may assume certain purposes are at play. . . . There is the context of a hopeful ending, even if not a conventionally happy ending--the narrator or protagonist may experience hell, but will survive, and may emerge triumphant, or even still naively innocent. . . . Is a hopeful ending appropriate, even given the audience, or does such an ending almost mock the choicelessness of the victims?"

As we consider those hopeless questions, I invite people to report more spottings of the wandering sense of hope in the world of children's literature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I don't get the "sense of hope" idea at all. When I was a child, I read for escape (traveling on the Nonestic Ocean), glamour (Glinda! the real Glinda), satisfaction (_The Swish of the Curtain_, an English book about kids putting on a theatrical show), problem-solving (Sue Barton and her nursing cases): why would I have read for "hope"? I wanted the real thing, real slap-up-bang endings, and they were right there in books.

Is the idea that if I saw that problems resolved in books, then I would believe that my childhood problems would be resolved in real life? I think kids are smarter than that.

Haven't these people heard of reading for fun?