Let Her See

Ramona, Elsa, and teaching my daughter about the hard choices in the years to come.

A woman and a child walk through the woods in a black-and-white photo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andrey_Chuzhinov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Ask my 6-year-old to tell you her favorite movie, and she’ll answer, immediately and emphatically: Frozen 2. As we face a daunting stretch of coronavirus-imposed house arrest—no school, no music class, no play dates, no playgrounds—this is the movie she wants to watch, and rewatch, an experience made easier by Disney’s early, quarantine-assuaging distribution of the movie on streaming. Beatrice thinks the magical forest setting is “more realistic” than the ice palace in Frozen, and she says that Anna and Elsa are braver and stronger in Frozen 2. This is true, to a point, but it’s still a Disney movie and in the end Elsa and Anna give up nothing: Elsa saves the kingdom by riding her magical water horse ahead of the flood and freezing its waters, which recede into a placid, sparkling bay. Anna becomes queen, and Elsa moves to the enchanted forest, which suits her better than town life anyway. Whenever she likes, Elsa can ride her magical horse to see her sister. No one’s happiness, identity, dreams, or way of life is sacrificed.

Not all of Beatrice’s entertainment taste leans toward blond ice queens, thank God. In our time of isolation, we have returned to two favorite book series: the Ramona Quimby books by the centenarian American author Beverly Cleary, and the Anna Hibiscus series by the Nigerian-born author Atinuke. Both series are available as high quality audiobooks (you’re welcome, fellow parents!), and both are exceedingly wise on the topic of sacrifice, a topic to which I’m glad to turn our attention now.

The Ramona Quimby books were written across a span of decades—Beezus and Ramona was published in 1955, when my mother was a child, and Ramona’s World, the last in the series, came out in 1999, the year after I graduated from college. The Quimbys live in a working-class Portland, Oregon, neighborhood in an indeterminate decade. Ramona and her sister, Beezus, have a degree of privilege—a house and yard, library cards, reasonably good schools, and a neighborhood safe enough to walk, by themselves, just about everywhere. But they aren’t rich, or even comfortable by today’s standards. Their parents drive an old car that breaks down frequently; the girls share a small bedroom; they “scrimp and pinch” and eat whatever the supermarket has on sale—including tongue (according to Ramona, and also my daughter, a bridge too far).

But their lives are not miserable, or consumed by longing for what other families have—not most of the time, anyway. Everyone in the family does their part. Mr. Quimby works as a supermarket checker after he loses his job with the gas company; he goes back to school to become an art teacher and, when he fails to find a teaching job, returns to the supermarket as a manager. Mrs. Quimby, formerly a stay-at-home mom, goes to work as a receptionist in a doctor’s office and finds that she likes the work. Ramona and Beezus cook dinner, bury their dead cat to keep from upsetting their pregnant mother, sport at-home haircuts and hand-me-down boots. Painfully, Ramona realizes that Mrs. Kemp, the woman who watches her after school while her parents work, doesn’t even like her. When she complains to her mother, Mrs. Quimby asks her to think about how Mrs. Kemp feels. Did she expect or hope to spend her retirement years watching other people’s kids?

Mrs. Quimby says this not to be harsh or dismissive, but to invite Ramona into a more mature, empathetic point of view—the point of view that her parents share, that allows them to compromise their dreams without losing their identities. Similarly, in the Anna Hibiscus books, the protagonist is gradually allowed to see how the world around her is more complicated than the well-fed, laughing, comfortable life she knows inside her family’s compound. Anna is growing up in a large, unnamed city in “Africa, amazing Africa.” Though her own family has a beautiful garden full of mango trees and flowers, children just beyond her gate sell oranges and plantains so that they can buy food for their families. These children live without access to fresh water, and when Anna disrupts their fruit trade by selling her own oranges, watered generously in the compound, her grandfather tells her that people will go hungry tonight because of what she did. Instead of punishing her, he takes her the next day to work for the fruit sellers, fetching oranges in the heat from the market so they can help the girls make up for their lost sales. “It was a long way. There was no shade,” Atinuke writes. “Anna Hibiscus and her grandfather went slowly, because they were an old man and a small girl, unused to walking to market.”

Later, when Anna asks to go to the “other side” of the city, where her auntie delivers clothes to motherless children and her uncle takes the ferry to work, some members of her family tell her she doesn’t belong there and does not need to see the poverty. “Is it bad to be poor?” Anna asks. “Is it wrong?” Her mother and aunties tell her it is not easy to be poor, but her grandfather insists on letting her accompany her auntie and uncle on a trip there. “Let her see,” he says. “Let her know.”

I discovered the Anna Hibiscus series, published long after my own childhood, through a librarian friend who never fails in her recommendations. Like Cleary, Atinuke is beautifully attentive to the point of view of children, as well as the pain of growing older. But when I enthused about the books to the mother of one of Beatrice’s classmates last year, she told me that she wished the books had come with a content warning.

A content warning, I repeated, thinking I’d missed something. About what?

She would have liked to prepare her child for the parts about poverty, she said.

I wonder now if she meant prepare—or put off for another day. Of course we all have to make decisions about what our children are ready to hear, but I also wonder how many other days we have left to put off hard truths.

When Anna Hibiscus’ grandfather says, “Let her see,” he speaks, like Mrs. Quimby, not out of harshness but out of love and respect. Part of growing older, both families believe, is learning about things that are wrong and working to fix them. Don’t we all believe that? Don’t we all want our children to understand why they should empathize with a tired babysitter, a troubled classmate, or children from another part of town or another part of the world?

Facing weeks or months of self-isolation, I’m grateful for the things my family has not had to sacrifice—we have our own enchanted forest to roam, plenty of food, a house to live in, books to read. Movies to watch! But kids who were looking forward to birthday parties, swimming pools, playgrounds, and the normalcy of everyday life—the happy routine of just going to school—are learning unasked-for lessons in sacrifice these days, and it’s early. What will it be like in May—what if the kids are still at home in June?

It feels to me like an opportunity to look at other models of sacrifice and bravery, and to think about the impact on the community—to think about why we are doing it, and to put our own sacrifices into perspective. The sacrifices Beatrice and her sister will have to make in their lives will likely be vast, particularly if their generation, and any generations that follow, has a chance of mitigating climate catastrophe. They will have to drive less, consume less, live differently. They may decide that it is not OK to have children. They may choose different careers. Gently, I have tried to adapt Beatrice’s mind, as well as my own, to this reality—encouraging her love of nature and animals, talking about why it’s better not to fly or buy things made of plastic—but I fail her every day, and I recognize, in my desire to protect her, the same way my generation was shielded from the harsh realities of industrialization, pollution, deforestation. We were told to stop using phosphate detergents, to stop using aerosols, and not to litter. Bea has learned to recycle, to turn off lights, and not to litter. In her kindergarten—now shuttered—she once wove a baby blanket out of plastic grocery bags.

But recycling will not save us. Cutting back a little won’t do much. There is no magical horse, and no one has ice powers to hold back the flood.

The other day my retired neighbor texted me to ask if we want to help him pick up trash along the roadside, but it occurred to me that even that isn’t safe, especially for him—not until the virus has passed. So my family is painting and reading and making newsletters for our friends; we’re taking long walks along the river. I think about what it will be like to feel safe enough to pick up trash with my daughter and my neighbor—an early summer morning, or maybe an afternoon in the fall. Litterbugs! Bea will say, picking crumpled tallboys out of the weeds. Maybe she’ll still be humming that song from Frozen 2, the part about heading into the unknown.