“Put your character in harm’s way,” novelist Tom Barbash told students in a writing class I took some years ago, and I realized at that moment why I would never be a novelist. It was the same reason, perhaps, why I would never be a mother: I am too tenderhearted, too afraid. If I had children (or characters), I’d wrap them in bubble wrap to keep them safe until they turned 21.
But that would never work, of course, and not just because they would suffocate. Parents cannot — should not — protect their children from all danger, loss or pain, just as authors must not protect their protagonists. Children need to learn to cope with adversity. And novels — well, you can’t have a good novel without conflict, even when conflict leads to sadness, or tragedy.
Are the rules the same if you are writing for children? Can young readers handle stories that are sad or troubling?
A few weeks ago, Time magazine ran essays on that topic from two notable and accomplished writers for children — Newbery winner Matt de la Peña, and two-time Newbery winner Kate DiCamillo.
Their essays became a conversation, of sorts. De la Peña wrote first:
“If I had the chance to ask Kate DiCamillo anything, it would be this,” he wrote. “How honest should we be with our readers? Is the job of the writer for the very young to tell the truth or preserve innocence?”
He went on to recount how, in his new picture book, “Love,” he and illustrator Loren Long were asked to “soften” one of the illustrations. “In the scene, a despondent young boy hides beneath a piano with his dog, while his parents argue across the living room,” he wrote. “There is an empty Old Fashioned glass resting on top of the piano. The feedback our publisher received was that the moment was a little too heavy for children.”
De la Peña wasn’t so sure. “We are currently in a golden age of picture books, with a tremendous range to choose from,” he wrote. “Some of the best are funny. Or silly. Or informative. Or socially aware. Or just plain reassuring. But I’d like to think there’s a place for the emotionally complex picture book, too.” (You can read his full essay here: http://ti.me/2CTk02S )
A few days later, DiCamillo responded, in an essay called “Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Bit Sad.” (http://ti.me/2mpCH47)
“I was a kid who hid under the literal (and metaphorical) piano,” she wrote. “For me, as a kid, to see that picture would have been such a relief. I would have known that I was not alone. I would have felt less ashamed.”
She went on to evoke the best children’s book ever written in the history of the English language, one with a sad ending, one that not only put one of its main characters in harm’s way, but actually killed her off: “Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White.
“E.B. White loved the world. And in loving the world, he told the truth about it — its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty,” DiCamillo wrote. “He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we were not alone.”
Children know that the world isn’t all sweetness and light — or, if they don’t know, they will learn it soon enough. (Unless they are swathed in bubble wrap.) A good children’s book, DiCamillo says, tells the truth but makes it bearable.
A good children’s book puts its protagonist in harm’s way, but ends with a feeling of hope.
Do you agree? Disagree? What are some of your favorite children’s books? Do they have a hint of darkness to them? Write me: email@example.com, and I will use your comments in a future column.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.