Sunday, February 14, 2016

Writing About Tough Topics for Kids - Author Panel

On Saturday, February 6th, authors Kate Messner, Jo Knowles, and Tamara Ellis Smith participated in a panel discussion focused on writing about tough topics for kids. As Jane, our Childrens Room manager, noted in her introduction, the subject of tough topics and how to talk about them with kids is a fraught one, and the differences between the issues kids and adults think kids are ready to explore are striking. The authors discussed this tension and why books that grapple with topics such as loss, addiction, and abuse are important resources for young readers.

L to R: Kate Messner, Jo Knowles, and Tamara Ellis Smith

The panel began with each author discussing her recent works dealing with sensitive and traumatic issues that kids face.

Kate featured two of her works of middle-grade fiction: All the Answers, published in 2015, and The Seventh Wish, coming this summer. All the Answers, in which seventh-grader Ava Anderson discovers her pencil can answer almost any question, deals with the reality of anxiety and catastrophic thinking in kids lives, something Kate shared she also experiences. Ultimately, Ava discovers herself asking the pencil questions to which she shouldn’t necessarily know the answer. Kate noted that her work has been criticized for the protagonist having “too many issues” when school, family, and friends converge in her novels. Kate argued that it seems adults often want children’s literature to reflect the lives they wish kids had instead of the lives kids actually have. 

One issue Vermont children increasingly deal with is addiction in the family. The Seventh Wish, Kate’s forthcoming middle-grade novel, is a retelling of the Russian folktale about a wish-granting fish. Kate wondered what contemporary kids would ask for, which would let us know what is really on their minds. The book started as a light-hearted story of a girl asking the fish to help with her dance performance. After learning of a close neighbor’s daughter’s struggle with heroin, Kate’s novel continued in a new direction, delving into how a family member’s addiction affects Charlie, the protagonist. The Seventh Wish demonstrates that not everything can be wished away. Older middle-grade students, Kate maintained, can and do deal with issues like drug addiction in their families, and books are a safe place in which to explore them.

Jo emphasized that she approaches her books from the underside, often focusing on what we don’t see and how it still affects us. For example, in Lessons from a Dead Girl, the story is told from the point of view of a friend of a victim of sexual abuse. Read Between the Lines is her most recent work of young-adult fiction and a tribute to Robert Cormier, author of The Chocolate War. Jo credited The Chocolate War as the first book in which she felt the real world was being shown to her. Read Between the Lines, like The Chocolate War, is a story of bullying told from multiple points of view that exposes lifes complexity. Jo underscored that all of her writing questions how we live with not only what we’re given but also what we observe happening to others, which affects us whether we realize it or not.

Tamara introduced Another Kind of Hurricane, her 2015 work of middle-grade fiction, as a labor of love that she started in 2005 after she took her then 4-year-old son to drop off donations at a Hurricane Katrina food and clothes drive. Her son asked, “Who is going to get my pair of pants, Mom?” Tamara realized that another 4-year-old boy would soon be wearing her son’s pants and imagined what it would be like if he and her son could meet. Another Kind of Hurricane chronicles the intersection of the lives of two ten-year-old boys—Zavion from New Orleans, whose family lost their home in Hurricane Katrina, and Henry from Underhill, Vermont, whose best friend recently died in a tragic accident—who meet after Henry’s blue jeans with his lucky marble still in the pocket make their way to Zavion. In addition to exploring different kinds of loss, the novel asks how and why we connect with other people in places we couldn’t have imagined. Another Kind of Hurricane pulls back the layers society places over us that connect us, creating a map in which kids can identify places of connection.

The panel opened the conversation to the audience, and Jane began the broader discussion by noting that Jo used the phrase “honest places” rather than “dark places” to describe the situations she explores in her writing. Jo answered that her preference for the phrase honest places has to do with the reality of the kinds of issues children experience. Jo contends that books are the safest places to first experience the topics that adults often say children aren’t ready for. Tamara noted that when adults say that children aren’t ready for certain topics, what the adults really mean is that they don’t know how to talk about those topics with kids. The issues of Hurricane Katrina distilled—loss and fear—are issues all kids have experienced in different ways. Kate posited that adults should allow kids to decide if they’re ready for the issues presented in books: kids can and will put books down if they’re not comfortable, and there’s no harm in reading a few pages. If an adult is concerned a child is not ready for a book, he or she could say to the child, “That’s a little edgy; you may or may not like it, ” but not giving kids these books won’t keep away the issues explored in them.

Another audience member inquired about how the authors chose content and context when writing about sensitive topics. Kate pointed out that in The Seventh Wish, heroin use happens off camera. The reader sees the consequences of drug abuse, not the abuse itself. Kate noted that she tackled the issue of heroin addiction differently in this novel written for a middle-grade audience differently than Jo likely would have in a novel for high-school students. Kate referenced her Ranger in Time series as another example of exploring tough issues, this time related to American history. Ranger in Time: Long Road to Freedom unravels sanitized accounts of the Underground Railroad as a highly organized, lantern-to-lantern journey from the American South to Canada. Writing this text challenged Kate to consider how to address the horrific and shameful reality of slavery in America for kids. At the same time, there are aspects of slavery—particularly sexual violence—that she couldn’t talk about in a book for younger middle-grade readers.

The question of whether the books “teach lessons” about tough subjects also arose. Tamara maintained that it’s important when writing to leave space for readers to draw their own conclusions, which creates an interesting collaborative dynamic between the writer and individual readers. Kate added that the big questions explored in all three panelists’ books are more complicated than black and white lessons; she offered “just say no” to drugs as an example of a dictum that we know doesn’t work. Jo said that her books don’t contain lessons, but rather they depict what life is like and how one person navigated it.

One audience member asked whether books like Jo’s Read Between the Lines—books that deal with issues current students experience—are being taught in schools. Jo answered that core curriculum standards make it difficult to add new materials, but that teachers often find alternative ways to introduce such books, often via extracurricular reading groups and summer reading programs. Librarians also play an important role in getting middle-grade and young-adult fiction into the hands of students. Tamara stressed the importance of getting literature into classrooms beyond English. For example, social studies classes could use Another Kind of Hurricane as part of a unit on natural disasters and how to fundraise in their wake. Tamaras Another Kind of Hurricane Project, launching this month, aims to do just this while connecting schools in one part of the country with others in disaster areas in a reciprocal learning experience.

At the end of the discussion, Kate asked the panelists to suggest favorite books written by other authors that cover tough topics. Her own nominations were Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, both works of young-adult fiction that deal with issues of race and justice. For younger middle-grade readers, Kate recommended Linda Urban’s forthcoming Weekends with Max and His Dad, illustrated by Katie Kath (available April 5th), about divorce and the transition to two houses. Jo recommended two memoirs for older middle-grade readers: Cece Bell’s El Deafo, because she’s “a fan of the grit,” and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which Jo finds to be a great introduction to free verse poetry. Tamara suggested the recently released Pax, written by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Jon Klassen, which is a work of middle-grade fiction that deals with war.

Some links with more information on our panelists, their texts, and author classroom visits: