Billy's Bad Day and other existential crises
December 15, 2017 9:29 AM   Subscribe

I have a very specific visceral reaction to "sad" children's books (and sometimes other media like television shows or movies). Is this something I should be investigating further?

Gosh, I'm even having trouble typing out exactly what bothers me. I've described it this way in the past: I am devastated by Piglet and the whole Hundred Acre Wood crew because (in my opinion) they are constantly having really tragic misunderstandings. But it is not just a Winnie the Pooh problem, but any sort of children's media where a character has a tragic misunderstanding like:
- My parents are upset so I want to run away, etc
- My friend and I had a fight and we will never make up
- I witnessed something I don't understand and my imagination made up something sad instead of fun/interesting (such as, there is a surprise party being planned for me but I think I am in trouble/something bad has happened/etc)

I know these are REALLY COMMON tropes in children's media because are they one of a few kinds of tension you can create in realistic children's storytelling. Basically any time an author/writer has an action where there is a logical (but wrong) reaction, there is a happy ending where an adult or other smarter individual explains what went wrong and everything is better. That's the part that kills me -- despite the almost universal happy ending/resolution of these stories, I have a very strong negative reaction anyway.

My example today is I just saw a book titled "Llama Llama Mad at Momma". I have no idea what this book is about but just hearing the title and seeing its cover was enough to upset me! I've also just watched a few minutes of some children's shows (like "Max & Ruby" or "Kipper") and even though there wasn't a specific plot point in those scenes like I was describing, the curious/sensitive sort of nature of the characters was enough to make me turn it off.

I think if I examine it long enough, I am strongly reacting to young characters having complex sad or negative introspective feelings. Usually I feel just very sad, or I get a sort of memory trigger where I feel transported back to feeling that way when I was young. As far I as know, I didn't experience any obvious trauma that is related to this. While I was a curious and sensitive child, my life was not full of tragic misunderstandings, and I am struggling to remember even one instance like this of note.

Does anyone else have experience with this sort of thing and could offer insight?
posted by obtuser to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I experience something similar though maybe it's not precisely the same thing you describe. I really hate it when books, particularly children's books, have a plot point where the protagonist is disbelieved about something that is actually true. For example, everyone thinks that a girl cheated on a test when she actually didn't. Even when she is vindicated in the end and you have the "good ending" I find the parts where she is not believed really hard to handle. Maybe it is something to do with having experienced that as a kid and harking back to that feeling. I thought I was alone in feeling that way but the author Gretchen Rubin also hates stories like that, enough to actually write about it - well, I'm 99% I've read her saying that, but I can't seem to find the quote now. But I think it's a thing.
posted by peacheater at 9:34 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a children's bookseller and my colleagues and I discuss which books make us cry. I have often choked up while doing storytime. The books that get to me are not so much about bad things happening or being misunderstood as about how incredibly vulnerable a state childhood is. There's a book called Once Upon a Memory by Nina Laden; every time it's mentioned among booksellers someone says it makes them cry, although they can't tell you why.

Also, if you have lost one or both parents-- either to death or to the relationship going south-- children's books can bring up feelings about that hugely. I don't think I had ever thought about my father being a kid and having books read to him until I started reading books to kids.
posted by BibiRose at 9:44 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, I should have said--

I've also just watched a few minutes of some children's shows (like "Max & Ruby" or "Kipper") and even though there wasn't a specific plot point in those scenes like I was describing, the curious/sensitive sort of nature of the characters was enough to make me turn it off.

I really like this insight, and your whole post. Having thought about this effect many times, I'd never quite made the observations that you do.
posted by BibiRose at 9:48 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

My 8 year old is exactly like this and always has been. I still pre-read all of his books to look out for these kinds of issues, and there are many shows and movies that he won't watch. I think of him as highly sensitive and acutely tuned in to issues around loss, but objectively he has the happiest life ever, so I think it's just his unique brain pattern. Recommendation: don't watch Inside Out.
posted by xo at 10:05 AM on December 15, 2017

Best answer: I'm not familiar with any of those books, but I recently read A Wish For Wings That Work and sobbing partway through because it's pretty obvious how the plot is going to go, and thinking about why.

I think these stories are designed to elicit emotional reactions over the course of the story. They are going to hit those buttons a lot harder and with less subtlety than a book meant for adults, because they are for children and things need to be obvious or kids won't notice them.

I don't recall having the same sort of reactions as a child. Some of the emotions in these books can be more upsetting through an adult lens, because as an adult if you were feeling something to the pervasive degree of the characters in the stories it would be a really big deal like someone close to you dying or loosing your home.

So, basically you are having empathy for the characters in the book and feeling those emotions at the level they would feel them.

This isn't anything wrong that you need to fix.
posted by yohko at 3:44 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

+1 this has to do with being brought back to the extremely emotionally vulnerable state of what it's like to be a sensitive child. That's what the books are designed to do - make the reader empathize with the character - and if you experience that as an adult, it's startling and hits you in an emotional place you weren't expecting to have to defend.

(Your post reminded me of a children's poem my mom read me decades ago about a little boy who gives a little girl a flower and she tosses it away carelessly. OH MY GOD did I cry and cry about it as a child, and as an adult I still feel the emotional echo of my child-reaction and it makes me recoil as if I'd touched an oven.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:55 PM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

'Love You Forever" is a very simple children's book about lifelong unconditional love. Happy? Beautiful? Yes, for the characters. For the rest of us, a wrenching tragedy, since no one has that.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:37 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

The lesson in lots of these books is that bad stuff happens, it's not the end of the world and by talking or through love you can resolve problems or overcome sadness. Maybe you don't truly believe that can happen?
posted by fshgrl at 10:05 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for these kind answers. I think it is largely about the vulnerability of children, a topic which hits home very hard for me (and many other people every day) in addition to the sensitivity.
posted by obtuser at 9:12 AM on December 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

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