April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

On Boys and Guns | Readers Respond

Gun noises are noises, and I think a librarian is always on solid ground when she objects to noises. I’m not sure it’s necessary to make a big deal out of the fact that the gun noises are GUN noises, because children see guns in a fantasy context that has little to do with the way adults see guns. We adults know about gun violence in America: We’re freaked out, and we should be. But for children, the fantasy of having a gun is the fantasy of having power—particularly the kind of power that immediately eliminates danger and vulnerability. If you’re scared by an imaginary enemy (a Bad Guy) you don’t have to stay scared, because you (the Good Guy) can whip out your imaginary gun and shoot him. Problem solved! What a relief! I don’t think children imagine the pain, or the burns, or the funerals. It’s the adults who know about the funerals—and the statistics.

It seems to me that little boys are more susceptible to gun fantasies than little girls are. I don’t know whether that’s because boys are more sensitive than girls and therefore more frightened, or whether there’s an atavistic thing going on. In all societies I know of, men have been the primary wielders of weapons. Woven into the boy’s fantasy about a gun is the idea that he is a formidable masculine creature, and I think we female librarians shouldn’t play into this by acting too freaked out and solemn when a boy points his finger and makes the remarkably annoying explosive noises that little boys make. As far as I’m concerned, gun noises are noises, Playground Voice Noises. They don’t belong in a place that is sacred to reading. When children are chasing around playing gun games, I tell them to stop—but I don’t think it’s necessary to have a Solemn Talk every time a child blasts off.

I also think it’s important to remember that children have to play. And children’s play often involves dramatizing things that are dangerous or forbidden or scatological or anarchistic—ask the Opies. I believe that children know when they are playing. And I am sure that Betsy’s son is well aware that his piece of uncooked spaghetti is not loaded.

Elless, commenting on Betsy Bird’s post “Gunning for Your Children: When Picture Book Classics Pack Heat.” blogs.slj.com/afuse8production.

Extra Helping header

This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.

This article was published in School Library Journal's October 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Peter Langella says:

    “I don’t think children imagine the pain, or the burns, or the funerals. It’s the adults who know about the funerals—and the statistics.”
    And so it’s the adults who should change this narrative. We should teach children about the real use of guns, kind of like the poison stickers we place on household cleaners. Why let the truth be so ambiguous when the stakes are so high?

  2. Joey Goodall says:

    I’ve heard this argument before, and I get the impulse, but I don’t think it’s a good one. I’m sure that most kids that play guns with uncooked spaghetti, etc, know they’re just playing. But I think we have to find a way to help young boys feel powerful in scary situations without the use of guns (real or imagined). Like Peter wrote above, I think it is our job as adults to teach children about the real use of guns, and all the danger, destruction, and devastation that can come along with that. I know too many people personally affected by gun violence, including a young boy whose father was shot in a mass shooting at his place of work when the boy was 4 or 5 years old. Imagine how children like this will feel in the teachers/librarians/etc in their lives do nothing to discourage “gun” play.

  3. I wonder how much white privilege is playing out in the comments and the post above it. When I grew up it was Cowboys and Indians, Dragnet good-guys and gangster bad guys who were wielding weapons on a flat B/W screen or in the pages of a book. Somehow, the figures were all white guys, regardless of their roles.
    After teaching for four decades, and knowing “up close and personal” the role guns/gun-deaths-funerals played in some households/neighborhoods as opposed to others, to assume that little ones don’t grasp the burn and the pain and the loss is a conceit we can’t afford. Read THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET (David Barclay Moore) and countless other recent titles. No, not as read-aloud to those preschool noodle-toters, but for ourselves, to broaden our sense of what childhood is actually like for far too many kids at far too young an age.
    And what exactly is “old enough” to categorize the tragedies as current events or data points rather than as rips in our society?
    No argument about inside vs. outside voices, but violent play is violent play. Let’s not excuse or ignore it, and let’s react without assumptions of what that child may or may not know, first hand, about gun violence. Maybe starting with quiet questions would help… Have you ver held a gun? have you seen one? seen one fired? seen anyone who was shot- in real life, not in movies and video games? The answers may surprise you.

  4. When the guns come out in our Kids Department, I remind them that the library has a no guns in the library policy. “We don’t allow guns in the library, guys, please play something else.”

  5. Connie Pottle says:

    Betsy – In answer to your question about the Quangle Wangle’s Hat from the earlier comments on your article: It’s a nonsense poem by Edward Lear. The version illustrated by Helen Oxenbury used to be one of my favorite storytime books because of the wonderful language play and the way she drew the imaginary animals like the “Fimble Fowl with the corkscrew leg”. Janet Stevens has a great version too.

    • Judy Anderson says:

      Connie mentions my favorite Helen Oxenbury version…I mentioned the book in connection with Thidwick, because the various creatures also move in on the Quangle Wangle’s head, but with a much happier ending: “And at night by the light of the mulberry moon they danced to the flute of the blue baboon on the broad green leaves of the crumpety tree and all were as happy as happy could be with the Quangle Wangle Quee.” I would read that to a child any day!

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind