First of all, I have my mother to thank for this post. Second of all, this post is about illness in children’s literature. My mom has a fever. She’ll recover. Wow, it feels awful to be saying thank you to her when she feels so bad. Well, it’s inspired me, what else can I say?
Everybody gets sick. It’s a sign that the body is not indestructible. Sometimes being sick can be as minor as having a cold, or it could be as serious as being in a coma. In children’s stories, there are several instances where people are sick, however there is always a comforting message and a peaceful resolution in the end: You will get better, or suffering no longer has to happen.
Children are exposed to sickness, and they do get sick, just like adults. They have lowered immune systems and while being sick is no fun; they need care and understanding that everything will be okay, even if they don’t feel great at the moment. “Miss Polly had a dolly” is a song about a doll who is sick. The doctor comes, and tells Miss Polly what to do to take care of it. Books about children being sick can help children understand a lot- once they understand why they get sick, it is a less frightening ordeal to go through.
The story of Madeline deals with being in the hospital. Madeline has to get her appendix taken out. She spends the night in the hospital, which is shown as an amusing place. “On her bed there was a crank, and a crack on the ceiling had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit.” (Bemelmans,) It is also seen as a fun experience as she receives visitors and they see what she has. “VISITORS FROM TWO TO FOUR read a sign outside her door. Tiptoeing with solemn face, with some flowers and a vase, in they walked and then said “Ahhh,” when they saw the toys and candy and the dollhouse from Papa. But the biggest surprise by far – on her stomach was a scar!” (Bemelmans,) It is a positive experience, up to the point where the other girls “want [their] appendix out too!” (Bemelmans, )
More common are books about children watching someone else who is sick. In the Magician’s Nephew, Digory defends himself when he is accused of ‘blubbering’, saying that others would cry too “if your mother was ill and was going to…die.” (Lewis, 10) It is acceptable to cry and to be worried and/or scared about the health of someone else. It is a normal reaction. The Magician’s nephew alludes to the story of Genesis in the Bible. Digory is tempted by the witch to give the apple to his mother as she says “One bite of that apple would heal her…Go back to your own world. A minute later you can be at your Mother’s bedside, giving her the fruit. Five minutes later you will see the colour coming back to her face. She will tell you the pain is gone. Soon she will tell you she feels stronger…Next day everyone will be saying how wonderfully she has recovered. Soon she will be quite well again. All will be well again.” (Lewis, 150) The Witch represents the Serpent, and the apple is forbidden. Digory can not save his mother; as he is told by Aslan that the apple “would have healed her; but not to your joy or hers. The day would have come when both you and she would have looked back and said it would have been better to die in that illness.” (Lewis, 163). If he had listened to the witch, his mother’s life would be worse. He has to accept that he is not able to heal his mother, it is up to fate to heal her. He is allowed to save her with the permission of Aslan “What I give you now will bring joy. It will not, in your world, give endless life but it will heal. Go. Pluck her an apple from the tree.'” (Lewis, 163) Aslan tells him that she will eventually die, as everyone has to, but she will get better from the illness she is suffering from at the moment. “There she lay, as he had seen her lie so many other times, propped up on the pillows, with a thin, pale face that would make you cry to look at it. Digory took the Apple of Life out of his pocket.” (Lewis, 166) The Apple is magical. It has power- but it only has power because Aslan has allowed Digory to take it. “The brightness of the apple threw strange lights on the ceiling. Nothing else was worth looking at: indeed you couldn’t look at anything else. And the smell of the Apple of Youth was as if there was a window in the room that opened on Heaven…He peeled it and cut it up and gave it to her piece by piece.” (Lewis, 167) The apple works, as “About a week after this it was quite certain that Digory’s mother was getting better…a month later the whole house had become a different place.” (Lewis, 169) and the doctor says that “It is like a miracle.” (Lewis, 168) Aslan has the power to make Digory’s mother stronger; Digory is able to help his mother though by delivering the apple. He has no control over her illness. He needs help from others to make his mother better.
Other times, the characters in children’s books can heal others. In Anne of Green Gables Anne helps her friend’s little sister. The adults are not at home, so they have to rely on Anne to help. “Minnie May, aged three, was really very sick. She lay on the kitchen sofa, feverish and restless, while her hoarse breathing could be heard all over the house. Young Mary Joe, a buxom, broad-faced French girl from the Creek, whom Mrs. Barry had engaged to stay with the children during her absence, was helpless and bewildered, quite incapable of thinking what to do, or doing it if she thought of it.” (Montgomery, 142) Anne has to take control, because the person who is supposed to be taking care of Minnie May and Diana doesn’t know what to do. Anne has experience looking after sick children, and nurses Minnie May back to health.”Minnie May did not take kindly to the ipecac, but Anne had not brought up three pairs of twins for nothing. Down the ipecac went, not only once, but many times during that long, anxious night when two little girls worked patiently over the suffering Minnie May, and Young Mary Joe, honestly anxious to do all she could, kept on a roaring fire and heated more water than would have been needed for a hospital of croupy babies.” (Montgomery, 143) She takes control, while Mary Joe, stays in the background. She tries to be helpful, but Anne is the only one who can look after Minnie in this situation. As a child, she has more knowledge and experience than an adult, and she is able to do the work, even when “Matthew came with the doctor…the pressing need for assistance was past. Minnie May was much better and was sleeping soundly.” (Montgomery, 143) She has experience and is able to use the experience she has to help Diana. Without Anne there, Minnie May would have died, as the doctor tells the Barry’s later. Even though she is a child, she was able to help when an adult was in a crisis.
Introducing sickness in children’s books can empower children. Once they realize that they can help to make someone sick feel comfortable, or that they may feel better soon if they are sick themselves, it is seen as just a part of life. Everybody gets sick, including children, but there are ways that they can get better, by going to the doctor, by taking care of themselves, and by trusting others who care about them to help them feel better.
(In the process of writing this post my mother recovered. I, however, have been suffering with a hacking cough. Just woke up and it was there. Throat hurts. Rather unfortunate-Well, at least I can follow my own advice and remind myself it will be over soon!)
IMAGES (In order of appearance. Everything else in alphabetical order.)
- Bemelmans, Ludwig. Madeline. [New York]: Puffin, 1977. Print.
- Lewis C.S The Magician’s Nephew Canada: Fontana Lions, 1980
- Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. [Toronto]: Seal, 1996.
- Miss Polly Had a Dolly-Wiggles (Nursery Rhymes). Prod. Kids365tv. Perf. The Wiggles.YouTube. YouTube, 18 May 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AG3EaIeU62Y>.
- Donada, Ryan K. “Genesis and The Magician’s Nephew.” Web log post. The Meta-Kafkasis. WordPress, 7 May 2012. Web. 17 Mar. 2013. <http://metakafkasis.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/genesis-and-the-magicians-nephew/>.