Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Writing for Children, Message in Mind

I came across a tweet last week about writing for children that said if the writer’s message is to teach a lesson, the writer should throw that book away and start something else. As a new writer of children’s books, I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

I think the person is referring to a heavy-handed approach, kind of a checklist approach toward indoctrinating kids with the moral lessons the author thinks they ought to know. Think of the Berenstein Bears, where I imagine there’s a book addressing each one of the seven deadly sins. I know a lot of kids, and parents, love these books, but I’ve always had a hard time with them. Mama knows everything! Papa is an idiot! All the kids need is a list of rules and they’ll fall in line! When I finish reading one of these books to my kids, the first thing I feel like doing is turning to them and saying, “Now, honeys, do you see how the brother and sister were doing the same naughty thing you were and then…” I try not to do this, but the books really seem to force that kind of reaction, which makes me crazy.

That said, I’m not against books with lessons. I just prefer a bit more subtlety. Have you read this year’s Newbery winner, “Last Stop on Market Street”? It’s a picture book chock full of messages for kids, about looking for beauty in unexpected places, but more importantly, about helping to create that beauty by your own actions. The book provides a great lesson on how everyone, even a young child, can make a difference in somebody’s life by giving of themselves.

Now I don’t know that the author and illustrator (Matt De La Pena and Christian Robinson) set out to craft this specific message. I imagine Matt might have sat down to tell a story about a boy and his grandma. That’s where stories begin for me. In my debut picture book, “Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse,” I wanted to explore the relationship between a young girl and her classmate who has a tendency to make things up. As the idea evolved, it became a book “about” empathy but I believe a young child would say it’s a book about a couple of kids and whether or not one of them has a horse, and that’s fine with me. I do hope they pick up on the message of empathy, however. But back to that tweet. Is it wrong for me to hope kids learn a lesson from my book?

Every day, I’m hearing stories about kids being put down for their differences. In our own neighborhood school, kids have told students of color to leave the country, citing the words of our president-elect. It’s hard to be a parent, a writer, a human, and not get depressed. But after a week of feeling complete despair post-election, I got back to the keyboard. I have to tell you, I’m so glad to be writing for children right now.

Every week I go into our public elementary and volunteer in the classroom, and I see these kids who have more common sense and more kindness than anyone gives them credit for. The hateful things said by a very small number of young kids are nothing more than a repetition of what they’ve heard on TV or, unfortunately, from the adults in their lives.

But if kids can make a connection with a book in which kindness prevails, then they might start to believe that, even if there are multiple forces in their lives telling them otherwise. I’m more than okay with my books, or anyone’s, having messages, especially if those messages help raise a generation of people who are a little more tolerant toward each other.