If I decided to switch genres and write horror instead of books for children, I’m sure I could do a creditable job. After all, not many writers, horror or otherwise, can claim to have put their hands inside a human chest to hold a living heart.
While in nursing school, I worked as the weekend assistant in a cardio ICU. The facility was large enough to offer state-of-the-art heart interventions, but small enough that it needed its staff to float among various departments. So one weekend, when the OR staff had an emergency surgery and needed an extra hand, they taught me to scrub in. I became the weekend “heart holder.”
Holding a heart in surgery is about as dramatic as plucking eyebrows on a Saturday night. My job was to hold the heart in place to give the surgeon access to the part of the organ that needed work. The minutes would tick by with nothing to listen to but the steady hum of the bypass machine, and nothing to look at but something that resembled a piece of cold chicken, a marvel of human anatomy that makes us all live and breathe. When that part of the surgery was complete, I would return to the ICU to run errands and walk recovering patients up and down the corridors.
But the next morning always smacked of the miraculous. The heart that I’d held would be repaired and tucked safely back inside a person who was awake, and usually complaining. I’d help them up to a chair, open their Jello and juice containers, and position their pillows. All the while, I would listen. Heart surgery has a way of bringing out people’s most private thoughts -- about God and mortality, regrets and dreams. I found that holding hearts can be a serious business.
A writer’s words can touch and hold young hearts. They can surgically bypass barriers and reach inside where we ourselves could never go. Because of this, children deserve the very best -- stories that let them laugh and cry, stories that that help them find their way.
Kids get the fact that the world can be a difficult, sometimes scary place. A good book is a safe place to process hopes, fears, and ways of navigating the world. While they don’t need to be coddled, they do need respect for their place on the path to emotional maturity. The craft of writing needs good doses of caring and humility, because holding hearts is a serious business.