Good morning! It’s a brand new week on Teachers Write, and that means that Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up is waiting for you.
Guest author Elana K. Arnold joins us for today’s Mini-Lesson Monday.
Elana is the author of THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES and FAR FROM FAIR, two novels that do a beautiful job addressing tough issues in a voice that resonates with middle grade readers. That’s Elana’s topic for today’s mini-lesson…
Dealing with Heavy Topics When Writing for Different Age Groups
None of us is immune from the hard parts of life. As a parent, I wish I could shield my kids from all the scary, heavy things that are part of life: Death, Loss, Fear, Depression, The Great Unknown… Oh, how I wish I could feel all the hurt and pain FOR my children, happily, on my own skin, to protect them.
I know, of course, that doing this would be doing them a great injustice, because wading through the dark stuff can allow a person to mature and can reflect light and wisdom that is deeply meaningful and rewarding. But the impulse is there! Protect, deflect, defend.
So I understand when I read a review of my books for young readers, which do dip into really tough stuff, that questions why I “go there.” A recent Goodreads review of my most recent middle grade novel, FAR FROM FAIR, says this: “Life is precious. Our children deal with enough.”
I agree; life is precious. And that is exactly why we must embrace and wrestle with all of its aspects, the comforting and the uncomfortable. And, whether we admit it or not, our children are dealing with “enough.” They’re dealing with the same stuff, the same fears and worries and doubts. As a writer, it’s my job to create a place where kids can confront big questions. A book is a great place to practice saying “no.” If the topic feels too intense, the reader can put the book down and walk away. And isn’t that what we want for our kids? The opportunity to engage with risks on their own terms, and in a gentle way? Well, it’s what I want for my kids, and for my readers, and so I provide it through the stories I share.
But, depending on the age of the reader, the depth of the conversation may change. A great piece of parenting advice I once got was: Answer the question the child asks, but just that question. For example, if a kid asks, “Where do babies come from?” I might respond, “Babies grow inside a mama’s body until they’re strong enough to be born.” Then, I’d wait for the inevitable follow-up questions. They might come immediately, or days later, but they would come: “Well, how did the baby get in the mama’s body? What do you mean it takes two people to make a baby? How does the sperm from the daddy get into the mama? Oh! Did you and Daddy do that to make me?”
As a writer, I follow the same process. I believe almost any topic can be tailored to the age of a child; of course, what one person feels is “appropriate” for, say, a seven- year-old might be vastly different from what another person feels is “appropriate.” For me, the key is to follow the almost-intuitive responses that might guide us to answer our own children’s questions. Of course, each parent would approach the “where do babies come from?” question differently, and each writer will approach the “tough stuff” differently, too, according to her own heart. And that is okay! The way I write about the tough stuff will be different from the way you write about the tough stuff. For every hand, there is a glove. For every approach, there very well may be a reader who needs just that approach.
Today’s Assignment: Here’s an exercise to help you decide for yourself how you might want to deal with one “heavy topic” across different age ranges.
Pick a “heavy” topic. One that matters to you! Death is a good one to practice with.
Put two characters in a room: a six-year-old child and a grandparent. Have the six-year- old ask, “What is death?” (Or whatever the topic may be). Have the grandparent answer the question… just the question! Then allow the child to ask a follow-up question, and follow the discussion where it goes.
Repeat the scene. This time, make one of your characters 12 and the second character parent-aged, somewhere between 35 and 50. Have the 12-year old ask about death, this time with the understanding that all 12-year olds have some preexisting knowledge. Allow the conversation to unfurl as it may.
Put two teen characters in a room. One of them asks the other about death… Maybe, “Are you afraid of dying?” In this scenario, allow the two teen characters to express fear, doubt, comfort… anything goes.
You will see that the conversations are different in interesting ways. Look at the three dialogues you’ve created. What are the differences between them? Make a list! Then, perhaps more importantly, ask yourself, what are the similarities between them? These similarities will illuminate your personal truth: the things you think are valuable to impart regardless of the imagined reader’s age.
Be brave! Be honest. Dive in. And feel free to share a snippet of your writing or reflections on this activity in the comments today!
Note from Kate: If any of you will be at ILA in Boston later this week, please be sure to come to our panel about this topic on Saturday!