Classification Of A Traumatic Experience During Childhood English Literature Essay

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Currently, there is interest surrounding what classifies as a traumatic experience during childhood. A definition of trauma refers to an exterior incident that is intense and unexpected, which overwhelms the child's ability to cope or overcome the trauma at the time, (Macksoud, 1992). As described by the American Psychiatric Association (1987), the traumatic event must be "outside the range of usual human experience" and of sufficient intensity to "invoke symptoms of distress in most people" (as cited in Macksoud, 1992 pp.2). It is debated whether Children need to be aware of these kind of traumas through the medium of literature from an early age, or whether they should be protected from them and exposed to them at a later stage of development. An important traumatic event in history was the Holocaust which was the systematic annihilation of six million Jews in the Second World War by the Nazi regime, (Fischel, 1998). It was one of the most shocking and tragic events in history which is why it may be considered important for children to have an understanding of it and be aware of what adults and children had to go through in those historical events of the past.

The literature about subjects involving trauma, especially the holocaust, has grown rapidly since the 1990's. There are many types of fictional texts designed for children of all ages about the holocaust and the picture book is an example of one. Kidd (2005) believes that the picture book offers the most dramatic testimony to trauma because the genre is usually presumed as innocent. A picture book about the holocaust may have greater power to shock than any of the other contemporary genres of children's literature (Kidd, 2005). However should the function of a book be to shock a child? Is it really necessary for children to learn in this way? I find the view of Kidd (2005) very interesting so therefore in this essay I will be analysing three picture books based on the Holocaust and discussing whether they are necessary or unnecessary additions to children's literary experiences. They are all different types of picture books and in some ways have different purposes. I will discuss these and comment on how they are useful or not, or a selection of both.

Shirley Hughes, the author of one of the fictional picture books I will use in this assignment commented on the importance of pictures rather than real life images in books. She stated:

"Children are bombarded with electronic images from the cradle- and alot of it is very strident. I feel passionately that they have a chance to slow down, to bring their own personal exploration to a picture not just as an adjunct to reading but as a pleasure in itself". Interview with Shirley Hughes, The Observer, 15th July 2009.

This extract emphasises the value and significance that the authors of the picture books feel, which is why I believe they are an imperative genre of children's literature to analyse. The three books I will be using in this assignment are The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti and The Children We Remember by Chana Byers Abells.

An acknowledged belief about children's books, especially in the UK, is that they should be a pleasure for their readers, (Meek 2001). The overall consensus is that children should take enjoyment out of reading if they are to become confident and successful literates. Children use books as toys during infancy and they become an important aspect in their lives from early childhood and into adulthood, (Meek, 2001). This is a reason why it may be controversial to introduce young children to books about trauma and especially the holocaust as they may find it upsetting and it will then become an unpleasant experience. The debate stems from the conflicting ideas about the appropriateness of these texts for children and this is a matter which will be studied in this assignment.

The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes is a picture book aimed at older children between the ages of eight and ten. It is set in England in the Second World War and narrates the story of "Lenny Levi", a Jewish boy that lives in London and is evacuated to the countryside for his own safety. He is faced to deal with the consequences of war as his Dad is away in the army and his mother is away from him at their home in London. The story is relatively long and the pictures are very detailed. It records how he copes with living in an estranged situation and how he uses the symbol of the Unicorn on the coin his father gave him to stay brave through the hard times. The story ends with Lenny's Mother arriving at the country house and taking him away to stay with his Auntie in Wales, where they plan to meet Lenny's father.

Rose Blanche is set in Germany and is an account of a little girl named Rose who is faced with the consequences of war in her town. She discovers a concentration camp and visits to feed the prisoners on a regular occasion. The story ends with her inevitably being killed by one of the guards, sacrificing her life for the people who she helped and cared for. This story is aimed at older children at a similar age to those suggested for "The Lion and The Unicorn", at eight years and above. The pictures are extremely detailed in this picture book and colour is used in a very effective way, which I will draw upon later in the essay. As a picture book aimed at children, Rose Blanche is very symbolic and has many implicit meanings underlying it.

The Children We Remember is a very different kind of picture book as it records the Jewish experience of the Holocaust in a very different way by using real black and white photographs taken from the Archives of Yad Vashem. It includes short sentences and phrases in a fictional style, but as the pictures are stated to be real, it is obvious that the text matching the pictures is true. Similarly to the other two picture books, The Children We Remember is aimed at older change from seven to ten years.

The first argument that I will present is the notion that picture books about the Holocaust act as necessary additions to children's literary experiences. As stated in Kidd (2005), Elizabeth Baer puts a large emphasis on the importance of fictional texts that involve trauma, suggesting that what she defines as "confrontational" texts and proposing a set of criteria by which to assess the usefulness and effectiveness of children's texts in confronting the Holocaust sufficiently, (Kidd, 2005, pp. 2). Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche is one of the picture books that Baer suggests as a suitable example for children. She believes that it is a necessary piece of literature to give to children to read as it emphasises their protagonists direct experiences of the holocaust which extend to the reader and therefore involve the child outside the story, (Kidd, 2005). This may cause the child to understand the historical situations better as they are able to put themselves in that position and imagine what life was like in the war. The Lion and the Unicorn uses the same type of structure by creating a fictional character by which the reader follows in their journey and watches as they cope in times of hardship. Additionally, when reading picture books such as the three I have included, children are exposed to demonstrations of good morals such as bravery(The Lion and The Unicorn) and selflessness and pity on others (Rose Blanche and The Children We Remember).

In Rose Blanche, it is important to consider how she demonstrates the morals of selflessness and pity on others. It states in the text "Rose Blanche was furious at the way they had treated the little boy pp.10" and "At home she secretly saved the food off her own plate pp.16" (for the children in the concentration camp) and these descriptions of her show to child readers that Rose is compassionate and that she is willing to risk her own life ("she was growing thinner all the time" Rose Blanche pp. 16) for the safety of others. It also demonstrates that even in times of trauma people unite together and help those which they would not usually consider helping. This is a valid notion for children to learn and Rose Blanche can be considered as a picture book that does this successfully. Her death at the end is sudden and upsetting and the book seems to confirm the idea that children should be exposed to rather than protected from trauma so it does not come as such a big shock, (Kidd, 2005).

The Holocaust was such a key event in history and changed the way people think about memory and narrative as well as human nature in general, (Kidd, 2005). This therefore means that the exposure technique of presenting children with these trauma texts is necessary as the comfort of postponing the child's confrontation with evil and rejecting the existence of trauma is no longer possible in contemporary society as it changed too much in our history, ( Kidd, 2005).

It was famously suggested by Bruno Bettelheim that fairy tales help children progress through difficult experiences and everyday psychic trouble, (Kidd, 2005). Fairytale motifs surface in holocaust literature regularly and there is one included in The Lion and the Unicorn. Here is an extract from the book which demonstrates a imaginary motif similar to fairytales:

Lenny wasn't frightened. He went towards it. And at that moment e saw the Unicorn, It was alive, glimmering under the rosebush, sitting on its haunches with it's one spiralling horn and it's long, white silky mane. It turned it's beautiful neck and looked at him. (pp. 49-50).

Shirley Hughes created an imaginary unicorn that visits Lenny when he is time of great despair and this can be viewed as therapeutic for children and a symbol of hope and saviour. Kidd (2005) suggests that holocaust writing would be unthinkable without the therapeutic philosophy and he believes that this is included often in holocaust literature. Therefore, the imaginative aspects in The Lion and The Unicorn can be viewed as necessary additions to children's understandings and it is symbolic in teaching children about bravery s Lenny faced up to his fears. In agreement with Kidd (2005) and cited in his article is the opinion of Haase (2000) which suggests that fairytales and fantasy included in trauma literature have the potential to act as an emotional survival strategy for children. Therefore by including elements of fantasy in holocaust books, the author is providing more of a therapeutic exposure rather than facing them directly with the harshness of reality.

A typical plot presented in Holocaust literature begins in a time before the war which is happy and peaceful (Tal, 2004). This can be viewed as an effective method of narrative as it provides a useful juxtaposition between the disruption of the characters life and the depiction of suffering in the middle sections, (Tal, 2004). This type of plot is used in The Children We Remember. At the beginning of the book (pp. 1-3) a peaceful time is shown and it states:

"Before the Nazi's...

Some Children lived in town's like these".

The pictures act as a powerful indicator to how peaceful it was as they show quaint towns with no trouble occurring and they match the text. Most of the pictures shown before the Nazi's are introduced show happy children playing games and participating at school and in general doing what children do. Dramatically, the story changes and there is a powerful image (p.8) of when "the Nazi's came". By providing the reader with a mixture of narrative text and pictures before the war, it presents children with a necessary and useful historical framework, (Tal, 2004). It is important for the children to know the historical setting in order to comprehend the chronological order of the story and the extent as to which the change had an effect on the character's lives, (Tal, 2004). The Children We Remember is therefore successful in providing the reader with an accurate account of children's lives before the war, which makes it easier for them to understand the consequences when the war started.

I am now going to draw on factors which may account for it to be unnecessary for children's literature to involve text and pictures about traumatic events such as the holocaust. Kidd (2005) cited that one of the main counter arguments to the effectiveness of trauma literature is that confrontational is unattainable or almost always inadequate, that such literature is foolish and in some cases unethical. Short (1997) argued the view that providing children with literature about the Holocaust in general was not necessarily useful as he carried out research into how it is taught in English schools (1997) and found that a number of significant issues were being overlooked or poorly mishandled in the classroom. He emphasised the view that some of the literature may not be at all informative and significant for children to read and that it contained a poor reconstruction of what happened in the second world war, (Short, 1997).

In relation to this is the notion that picture books about the holocaust which end in happy endings are unrealistic and present children with the wrong idea about history. Tal (2004) stated that holocaust stories ending in a happy way are unnecessary to for children to learn about as the ending would have to oppose the historical reality of the period, which often did not end happily. The Lion and the Unicorn ends in such way :

"Jaunty now, and hand in hand with Mum, he (Lenny) walked towards the house".

This could be considered as an ineffective way of closing the book and may present an unrealistic view of the second world war to young children. Traditionally, children's literature ends in a closure rather than an ending , however literature about trauma must be considered in a different way and it is valued more if it is closed rather than completely shut. I discovered that The Lion and The Unicorn had quite an abrupt ending which is partially considered as unrealistic and by using Tal's (2004) interpretation, it would have been more effective to leave it as a more open ending. This is done effectively in Rose Blanche and The Children We Remember as they are open and thoughtful endings as it is not literally stated in Rose Blanche that she died so children can have their own perspective on it, and in The Children We Remember the ending focuses on the future and the children that did survive which provides the reader with a sense of relief after the shock of the violent images such as on pages 28 and 29 which is a picture of a woman and a child being put to death by a Nazi soldier.