When I showed “The Monster in the Mudball” to an adult, when it was still a work in progress, they suggested “resolutions” so that it would be crystal clear to young readers that characters in the book had, by the end of the story, learned lessons about right and wrong. They said that Frankie, a rebellious teenage girl, should agree that spray painting graffiti is wrong (an opinion held by other characters in the book) and resolve never, ever to do it again. They suggested that Jin’s grandparents, who are worried sick about losing their apartment, should learn, by the end of the story, that there are more important things in life than fretting about where you live.
I was grateful for the input. At my age (I’m pushing 63) I’m always grateful for input from younger, sharper brains than mine! But I didn’t do what was suggested. It smacked to me too much of preaching. I think children have very sensitive antennae for heavy-handed moralising. But it led me to think again of something I’ve wondered about throughout my 25 years of writing. Are we, as children’s writers, under an obligation always to present a world with resolutions, where lessons are always learned, where bullies get their deserts, where good always triumphs over evil, even though we know that isn’t true? Even though we know that life is often messy and problems don’t always have easy solutions? I know (from my own correspondence) that some adults think we should.
I should make it plain that I’m not talking about little children here. My books for little children always turn out all right in the end. My stories always reassure them that the monsters they imagine under the bed don’t exist. I’m not in the business of scaring or upsetting babies.
But then, at what age can we? At what age does a children’s writer start truth telling, moving away in their stories from a more simple and innocent world where everything is black and white, where problems are always neatly resolved by the end of the story? I remember being surprised that some parents furiously complained to a School Board (and the press!) when a teacher of 10 year olds accidentally let slip that Santa Claus didn’t exist. I was surprised that 10 year olds still believed it. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. If parents want to keep that fantasy alive as long as possible then that’s their right, isn’t it? Should other adults, especially writers, have the temerity to puncture that childhood bubble with unwelcome or upsetting truths about the world? I mean, who do we think we are!
Except, here’s an argument: wouldn’t we, as writers, be betraying children if we didn’t, in our stories, deal with life’s darker side? I don’t ask this as a cynic because I’m an incurable optimist who believes that most people are kind and want to do the right thing – my books are full of triumph over adversity because I’ve seen it happen myself. But I also believe (because I’ve seen and experienced that too) that sad things happen, sometimes very sad things, that even children have to learn to deal with disappointments, the loss of their dreams, bullying, injustice. And the really important thing I believe is that books are the best and safest place to start to learn how to do that. Because children can “practise”, along with their favourite characters, crying with grief, being terrified or hopeless, or out of control with rage. They can, with their favourite characters, as the story progresses, try out these different emotions, live with them, work through them. When they close the book those (perhaps upsetting) emotions may linger a while. But they don’t last. And, hey, the young reader came through! They’re safe, they survived the rollercoaster ride. Because, in the end, they were never really in danger, it was just make believe.
“Monster in the Mudball” is for young Middle Graders. Near the end, readers share with Jin his sense of helplessness and bitter frustration at being out of the action. Here’s where Mizz Z and Frankie climb up the iron bridge to rescue Smiler (Jin’s baby brother) and Jin realises, because of his dyspraxia, he can’t follow.
“Since Mizz Z exploded into Jin’s life like a multi-coloured rocket he’d done amazing things. Things he’d never dreamed he was capable of. Like rescuing Smiler from the sewer pipe. Then dragon-dancing with Grandpa. But he just couldn’t make that climb. He had to stay where he was on the factory roof, gazing upwards , feeling sick with anxiety…….”Jin agonizes about it some more. But, in the end, he gets over it. He tells himself it’s cool. That it’s no big deal because there are other things in life he’s good at. And I hope the young reader, who’s along for the ride, might like his thinking. And then maybe, just maybe, that’s a small truth told.
Susan Gates' is an award winning children's author. She's been a professional children's writer for more than 25 years. She's written for all ages from picture books for tinies ("Run, Run, It's Scary Poo!") to thrillers for young adults ("Viridian: Venus Angel"). She's also diversified a lot in children's literature, writing play scripts, poetry, graded readers for schools, comedy thrillers, thrillers, historical novels, ghost stories, short stories (to name but a few genres she's had a go at!). She once even wrote a series of funny books as W.C. Flushing about a time-travelling public toilet called Superloo. She has three children (now grown up) and lives in County Durham in Northern England with her husband Phil.
Visit Susan at: http://www.pinterest.com/monsterinthemud/susan-gates-childrens-books/
Tu Books, and imprint of Lee & Low Books, has kindly offered to give away TWO free copies of THE MONSTER IN THE MUDBALL to TWO of my lucky commenters. (Must live in the US to win.) The winners will be chosen a week from now.
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Excellent piece. I was going to say it all depends on the age of the child. Developmentally, younger children NEED to be reassured that things will work out for the best. As they get older, they learn that's not always the truth--and their literature should reflect that.
I've always debated about this myself. Yes, children want to feel safe, deserve to feel safe. But I also wonder if we do them a disservice by setting up false expectations for life.
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