In my last column, I wrote about how getting lost in a good book can help students hang on to academic advances they made during the school year. What I didn't talk about then is how reading offers an equally crucial benefit to young people by developing what are known as "soft skills" — the emotional intelligence we need in life to feel confident, make good decisions and endure bad things.
This is especially critical in Alaska, a state where too many children are victims of society's dark sides: poverty, abuse, neglect, discrimination.
Soft skills help us negotiate the everyday fears and challenges of life. They give us the mind muscles we need to successfully bounce back from adversity. Good reads develop their strength and flexibility.
An October 2013 study published in the journal Science found that reading literary fiction helps children better understand the complex social relationships we encounter throughout life. Delving into the mind of fictional characters helps us learn and experience empathy, the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.
This social awareness, along with managing emotions, setting and achieving goals, relationship skills and making responsible decisions, makes up the five cornerstones of the soft skill set that create the social-emotional foundation that helps us grow into healthy adults.
Young people with these skills in place are less likely to use drugs, experience violence or bullying and have a better chance of staying in school, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. These same skills are what allow young people to become good students, citizens and workers.
Between helping our academic smarts stick and our emotional smarts grow, reading for fun is a double engine for developing brains. As such, its potential impact on the lives of Alaska's children should be especially clear.
Alaskans live in a place where the extraordinary is ordinary. The daily landscapes we wake up to, from mountain to sea, beckon visitors from all over the world. Meanwhile, the daily lives many of Alaska's children wake up to are fraught with physical and emotional harm.
"We have high rates of reported child abuse," Pat Sidmore, a health and social services planner for the state of Alaska, said Friday. I'd contacted him to help me put the scope of Alaska's cycles of dysfunction into perspective.
The 2011-2012 National Survey of Children's Health measures adverse childhood experiences. While not a measure of abuse and neglect, the survey gauges the frequency and type of stressors children are exposed to.
The survey asked parents whether their children had experienced separation, divorce, a parent in jail, domestic violence, or neighborhood violence; whether they lived with someone who was mentally ill or had a substance abuse problem; whether they had experienced the death of a parent, their socio-economic status, and whether they had been treated unfairly because of race or ethnicity.
"We're in the bad category," Sidmore said of Alaska's ranking. "We are the second-worst category for having two or more of those adverse experiences."
The study found 40 percent of Alaska's children age 5 or under had experienced at least one adverse event; 15 percent of them had experienced two or more. Among the elementary-aged bracket — children ages 6 to 11 — 52 percent had experienced at least one adverse event; 27 percent had experienced two or more.
"Children with four or more of these events are four to five times more likely to have been diagnosed with a developmental delay than children with zero," Sidmore said.
Fiction strengthens our inner force
Learning social-emotional competency in the lower elementary grades gives kids a better chance of avoiding depression, violence and other serious mental health problems, according to CASEL.
Parents can help instill the essentials through reading. "Stories can be a way to explore how people deal with common issues like making or losing friends or handling conflicts," advises CASEL in its guide for parents.
"This not only reassures kids that they are not alone in their particular situation, but also provides an example of how someone can move through difficult emotions towards a positive resolution," Carolyn Danckaert, co-founder of A Mighty Girl, said last week via email.
"By reading about how these characters have overcome the challenges in their lives, kids can build confidence that they, too, can overcome their own challenges," Danckaert said.
I'd reached out to her organization, described as "the world's largest collection of books, toys and movies starring smart, confident, and courageous girls," for suggested summer reads that build character and emotional strength. Danckaert was kind enough to oblige.
Her picks, targeted at ages 10-13, include:
• "Counting Thyme" by Melanie Conklin
• "Fish In A Tree" by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
• "Goodbye Stranger" by Rebecca Stead
• "Raymie Nightingale" by Kate DiCamillo
• "Wolf Hollow" by Lauren Wolk
Read more about each book here.
I also sought input from people who work with children and trauma for their top reading picks. They are:
• "Aarvy Aardvark Finds Hope" by Donna O'Toole (All ages)
• "Emily: Out of my Mother's Darkness" by Janie Lancaster (teens)
• "Friends from the Other Side / Amigos del otro lado" by Gloria Anzaldua (Ages 6 and up)
• "Her Mother's Face" by Roddy Doyle (All ages)
• "Julie and the Lost Fairy Tale" by Janie Lancaster (teens)
• "The Kissing Hand" by Audrey Penn (Ages 3-8)
• "Mountain Dog" by Margarita Engle (Ages 8-12)
• "Mouse was Mad" by Linda Urban (Age 3-7)
• "My Diary from Here to There" by Amada Irma Perez (Ages 6-10)
• "One Crazy Summer" by Rita Williams-Garcia (Ages 8-12)
• "Peaceful Piggy Meditation" by Kerry MacLean (Ages 5-9)
• "Sassafras" by Audrey Penn (Ages 3-8)
• "The Whistling Tree" by Audrey Penn (Ages 3-8)
• "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio (Ages 8-12)
• "Be the Boss of Your Stress: Self Care for Kids" by Timothy Culbert (Ages 8 and up)
• "How to take the Grrrr out of Anger" by Elizabeth Verdick, Marjorie Lisovskis (Ages 8-13)
• "Proud to be You: The Positive Identity Assets" by Pamela Espeland, Elizabeth Verdick (Ages 8-12)
• "Respect and Take Care of Things" by Cheri Meiners (Ages 4-8)
• "Words are not for Hurting" by Elizabeth Verdick (Ages 4-7)
Wouldn't it be amazing if the current generation of Alaska kids is the one with which our state's poor social trends come to an end? Tend to your child's inner life with as much care as you can. Teach them resilience. You have your mission. Curl up with your kids, a good book and enjoy!
Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 — never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at email@example.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.
The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.