Teachers Write 7.4.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Elana K. Arnold

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.

Step One:

Pick a “heavy” topic. One that matters to you! Death is a good one to practice with.

Step Two:

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.

Step Three:

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.

Step Four:

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! 

Humor Breaks the Ice: Funny Books That Spark Discussion of Tough Topics – with Elana K. Arnold, Kate Messner, Mike Jung, Jo Knowles, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, and Audrey Vernick

Sat, Jul 9, 2016: 4:00 PM  – 5:00 PM 

John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center – Room 111 


Great speakers often open with jokes or funny stories because laughing makes audiences receptive and open to new ideas. Likewise, humorous books can be powerful jumping-off points for discussions of serious topics in classrooms, literature circles, book clubs, and families. This panel features five authors who inspire empathy by using humor to shine light in dark places.


43 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.4.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Elana K. Arnold

  1. Elena, thank you for the wonderful lesson. I do think books are a great help in exploring the tough subjects. You don’t feel as alone or the only one with those questions when you see the characters going through it. Thanks for the insight and writing exercise b

  2. Great post. I think kids appreciate books with tough topics, or at least that’s what I’ve noticed with the 9 and 10 year olds I work with. They are ready to think about the world at that age and all the unfairness and injustice that comes with any historical fiction, etc. And reading a book aloud with “tough topics” can spark great discussion. Your post is a great response to the worries parents have with kids reading about death, drinking, etc.

    But I have to admit, my first response to any of those “What happens when you die?” or “What is ___?” questions is usually, “Go as mom.” 😉

    1. Ha! Yes, Mom can be a great resource for these things. 🙂
      All kids have to deal with “tough stuff,” and I think books is a great, safe place to practice big emotions. Thank you for reading!

  3. I am glad to see this mini lesson. One of the things I have jotted in my “idea notebook ” is saying goidbye. My mother-in-law has terminal cancer, and it brings many emotions and feelings to mind as we go through this journey with her. Thank you for addressing this topic of heavy subject matter.

    1. Hi, Nancy. I recently had to say goodbye to my dad, who had terminal cancer, as well. That experience led to FAR FROM FAIR, which grew out of the tough questions I was asking myself, and listening my dad hash through, as well. Love to your family.

  4. Good morning, Elana!

    I really enjoyed reading this thought-provoking post. I was looking back at a story that I had written about a teenage boy tackling some tough situations with the help of his grandmother, and I began to wonder if I made the grandmother more like one of my own grandmothers would it have worked so well.

    Then, I began thinking about my own classroom and all of the different perspectives that are on display each and every day. While exploring current events this year, the students shared their very strong opinions on presidential candidate Donald Trump (and he has said some controversial things over the last few months). Some kids in class are scared by Trump, some don’t like the idea of him being the next president, and others love him and hope that he will some day lead the nation. Take any two of these students (with different perspectives) and sit them down in a room to talk about a serious subject and it would be a very interesting conversation (I’m not sure it would always be productive). If you then put a counselor in the room, the conversation may still be interesting and also productive.

    I have not read your books yet, but I plan on ordering Far From Fair (I can’t wait to read it). I will use a novel that my daughter and I have just finished – Kate’s The Seventh Wish. The reason why I love books that tackle difficult topics is because it can be a springboard for more conversation. Kate does a beautiful job discussing the issue through her characters and the plot of the story. The DARE (drug awareness type programs that come to our local schools) presentations don’t delve into the high school neighbor friend with an addiction, the college brother that is struggling with alcohol abuse, or the former babysitter and friend that is addicted to heroin. These are the situations that are shocking to a young person. These are the situations that young kids, like my daughter (almost a teenager), need to learn before they happen so they will say, “NO” or be ready to cope with a friend that is struggling with an addiction. Truly, the addiction can be replaced by any other roadblock that might get in their way, and by reading about it, the child will be prepared in the future.

    For the Goodreads reviewer that writes, “Life is precious. Our children deal with enough.” – Don’t you want your child prepared to deal with the “enough”? Life may not be precious if the enough becomes too overwhelming. A well-written book can provide the child with not only the information about the topic but also the means to deal with the situation. And it can start a conversation with a parent or trusted adult, which is the best part.

    I apologize for my long and lengthy response, but as a parent, teacher, and reader, I am passionate about this topic. Keep on writing these books that tackle difficult situations, and I will continue to get them in the hands of my students (and my own children). Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Andy! I’m passionate in this arena, too, and I think our young readers need us–writers, teachers, parents, and adult friends–to give them safe places to explore their big feelings. Thank you for doing this work!

  5. My best conversation was between the 12 year old and the parent. The topic was: Bad things happening to good people.

    Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s so unfair!
    I know.  It can be really frustrating.
    But why? Why does it always work out like that?
    Because it feels so unfair.  We don’t think about it when bad things happen to bad people.  We think that’s justice, it’s fair, they deserved it.  When bad things happen to someone who doesn’t deserve it, it seems so wrong, and that wrongness makes us angry.
    Gah! How do we fix it? Make it better?
    Sometimes you can’t.  And that’s why we get angry.  Because there’s nothing we can do about it.  That inaction is so madding that we get angry.
    So we just sit here and don’t do anything?
    We do everything that we can.  We try to make our own world as good as possible and try to be as just and fair as we can.  And we hope that everyone else is doing the same thing in their own worlds as well.
    But what if that doesn’t happen?
    We keep trying.  We don’t give up.  Just because there is injustice somewhere else doesn’t mean that we give up being fair and just in our world.  
    But that doesn’t make it better somewhere else!
    No, it doesn’t.  But maybe our justice will get carried from our world to someone else’s world and so on and so on until it gets to where there is that injustice.
    But that might never happen!
    It might not.  And it might take a really long time, longer than we have here.  But we keep working on it.  Because it will never get better if we give up.
    I wish there was more I could do.
    I wish there was too.

    1. Hi, Andrea! This is great. I often find that working in a specific memory of the characters can help ground a philosophical discussion, so maybe try including a specific “bad thing” that happened to a good person–either the 12-year old, the grown-up, or someone they know. See where that takes you!

  6. I am writing a historical novel set in 1751. The Black Laws for New France were in effect. How would you suggest talking about some of the aspects of this? For example, people then often self-identified as “mulatto” but that would be seen as offensive today. I have a character whose heritage is important, and I am wrestling with how to describe his parentage. Do I use the term of the period, or try to do something correct for today?

    1. Hi, Chris! Perhaps a writer who works in historical fiction would be better prepared than I to answer this important question. My books tend to focus on contemporary times. Writer friends… want to chime in?

    2. Chris, I wonder if the books of Laurie H. Anderson would help you with this. Her 3 book series — CHAINS is one of them — is set with free and enslaved characters, as well as colonial & British characters, at the time of the Revolution. She confronts the issue of freedom/enslavement directly, not babying it down, but also age appropriate. A quick scan might give an example of how one writer described skin color and roles.

      1. Thanks. I will check that out. The British novels I have read do use “mulatto”.

  7. Thank you, Elana, for tackling tough topics in your writing. As a teacher and a parent I think it’s important for adults to present tough challenging issues in a thoughtful and sensitive way. I also think it is up to us, as parents and teachers, to decide which books and articles are age appropriate for our kids. I think very few issues should be off-limits (I’m hard-pressed to think of one off the top of my head), but it really does make a difference in how it is presented and addressed depending on a child’s age. I love today’s exercise because of this!

    My writing from the point of view of the grandparent w/ a 6 yr old was quite simple and straightforward. It really is easy to just answer the question being asked. As grown-ups we probably tend to read into more than is there and give more than is needed. I chuckled when I read the above comments about “Go ask your mom,” because I feel that any follow-up questions from a 6 yr old may be answered like that if you are the grandparent. I found the 2 teenagers to be much more challenging as heavy topics probably don’t just come up…there is an ongoing conversation where something leads to that heavy idea. I’m still working on that one.

    Here’s a snippet of my 12 year old & parent conversation:
    What does it mean to be gay?
    It means two people of the same gender are attracted to each other. That two men or two women can be in love with each other.
    Oh. Do we know anyone who is gay?
    Yes, quite a few actually. The HS principal is gay. Do you remember Sgt. Smith who did the bike safety course in PE? That is Mr. Brown’s husband. My friend Marcia is gay; you’ve met her girlfriend Lola. Miss Cann – you dog sit for her and her fiancee Amy.
    Huh…so why is this such a big deal?

    1. Hi, Tracy! I think it’s interesting how some people found it easier to write the conversation between teens and others found the parent/child or grandparent/grandchild dynamic to be more natural. Maybe this exercise is also a good place to find your “sweet spot” as a writer for and about young people!

    “Death is weird, man. Like, where do you go? Your body literally rots. I think I’d have my body turn into a tree or something.”
    “Dude, what are you talking about?”
    “You know, they have those kits or whatever where your body decomposes and, like, fertilizes a tree. So your legacy lives on!”
    “You are such a freakin’ tree-hugger.”
    “It’s a good idea! And I’m not a tree-hugger. I am a tree. Figure it out.”
    “Yeah, man. Whatever.”
    “Or I would get one of those eco-friendly cardboard boxes.”
    “You’d be buried in a cardboard box? I don’t know if your parents would go for that. ‘Hey, save that refrigerator box — Ashton might die, so we want to keep it.’ Yep, I can see it now.”
    “Dude, at least I’m planning.”
    “Planning? Sorry I’m not obsessed with death like you are. Pass the joint.”
    “Here. Whatever — I’m gonna live it up in my next life.”
    “Why don’t you live it up in this life?”
    “I mean, yeah, that’s an idea, man. Deep thought of the day.”
    “Can we just talk about Miranda’s boobs?”
    “They are like pillows.”

    1. So one of the things that really works well here is the conflict between the two teens. I have been told (and I believe) that good dialogue should move the story forward, reveal character, and create conflict. You are off to a great start here!

  9. My brother-in-law who is only 61 was just diagnosed with dementia, so I chose “What is dementia” as my hard question. The teen dialogue revealed how teens who have only partial information about a topic continue to spread misinformation amongst themselves; my takeaway is that it’s important to test for understanding with our teens, so they get the same reassurance we give younger children.

    1. Hi, June! I am sorry to hear about your brother-in-law. I found, while writing about Right to Die while my dad was struggling with his own end of life decisions, that creating fiction was so important for my own emotional process. Art can both imitate and enrich life. Thank you for your good point about how two young people alone together can spread misinformation amongst themselves! This is true (and can be true among adults, as well!).

  10. Elaine – Thank you for today’s lesson. I have on purpose not dealt with “tough” subjects because I am definitely of the deflect and protect thinking. Your wording was my “ah ha” moment and I will now be more willing to cross the line. Although I don’t have anything to share yet I am going to work on this exercise. I ask students to step out of their comfort zone and try so it is time to take that advice myself. Again Thanks

    1. Dear Sheila,
      I am glad this exercise has helped you to feel more willing to cross the line, as you say! Now, the next step is like the Matrix teaches us… must there be “a line” at all?
      Yes, I think as parents, teachers, and writers, it’s important for us to challenge ourselves the same way that we challenge our young people.
      Thank you for stopping by today!

  11. This was a very challenging exercise, even when sitting in the comfort of my backyard on this delicious July 4th. In comparing the experiences, I think the conversation between the 6 yr old and grandma was easier. I tend to write about experiences from that time in my life and connect to how I think a child would interact. Most difficult for me was probably the 2 teenages, although I’m not sure who of the age groups would have the strongest emotions relating to the situation. I feel like I didn’t really address the sadness and loss that is probably experienced instead writing about how these characters might talk about the topic I can link my work to a googe doc for those who might want to see and/or comment https://docs.google.com/document/d/1UqXbgLwKnHaCApe-er0w63htCXjdfnBlzdkw531t9S4/edit

    1. Dear Mona,
      I think that this exercise can be helpful in several ways, one of which is helping the writer find her “sweet spot” when it comes to what age kids we want to serve. It sounds like the exercise pointed you in the direction you already felt comfortable heading, and that can be great!
      Thank you for stopping by today.

    2. Mona, can you get the SHARE link instead of the URL at the top of the Google Doc? We don’t have permission to view the document with this URL, and I would like to read your conversation. Thanks!

  12. Elana, I agree 100% with you! Reading about difficult, emotional topics, and seeing how characters respond to them is great practice for youngsters for when they actually confront these topics themselves. As a K-2 teacher, I’ve sometimes struggled with wanting to share great literature with my students, but not wanting to cross some imaginary line if parents might not choose to read the same text to their children. I guess my best answer is to find well-written books that deal with topics in age-appropriate ways. Similar, I guess, to your activity. Just try to address what kids might be wondering, but nothing more.

    I’m transitioning into our K-5 PBL/library position this fall, so my sphere of influence is widening! I’m sure I will experience this topic even more. I appreciate your post, as it gets me thinking about the importance of providing our kids with opportunities to explore difficult topics in low-risk ways through literature.

    1. Dear Mary,
      Thank you so much for being willing to share books with the readers who may need them. You mention an “imaginary line” that you worry about crossing, and this is an issue I see come up over and over again. We love the kids we serve! We don’t want to hurt them! We don’t want to upset their parents, either. I think more and more discussions, like the one Kate Messner recently featured on her blog concerning a librarian’s worries about THE SEVENTH WISH, is really the key to broadening our understanding of readers’ needs and expanding our own comfort with “lines.”
      Thank you for stopping by!

  13. Elana, you have made me a very happy writer, today! Last year, your exercise was such a revelation to me. I remember how surprised I was by my teenage girl when she entered my setting after being told her parents were divorcing. F bombs and anger over the rose bush she and her father had planted for her 13th birthday were such a contrast to the cat that contentedly arched it’s back along its thorns.

    Today, my teenagers were the surprise again. I wasn’t expecting humor, but I recall from my own teenage years, and then, more recently, the way my son handled the death of my father, dipping in and out of his grief, only skimming along the the surface of his feelings on most days. The hospice therapist astutely guided me through allowing him to address his grief in his way. It was combinations of these memories that guided me through this exercise. Here are my teenagers:

    Maggie: Do you think there’s life after death?
    Stephanie: I don’t know, but we should have a sign.
    Maggie: What?
    Stephanie: If we die, we should have a sign.
    Maggie: That’s seriously creepy.
    Stephanie: Yeah, but, if one of us dies, wouldn’t it be cool if we could communicate beyond the grave? Like that movie Flatliners, or Ghost- yeah, Ghost! We could decide on a symbol that only we would know.
    Maggie: Still creepy, but if you died and started banging doors and pushing things off tables, I would be totally freaked out!
    Stephanie: Let’s have a word. We could probably write it in steam on a mirror.
    Maggie: What word?
    Stephanie: Purple. It’s our favorite color.
    Maggie: Purple? You freakin’ die and our word is purple?
    Stephanie: It’s deep! Haha!
    Maggie: No! You’re dead. I can’t stop crying. You are NOT writing purple on my mirror.
    Stephanie: You’re so intense. Okay. How about…not a word– a symbol– A HEART! I’ll draw a heart.
    Maggie: That’s a little weird, isn’t it? I mean, you’re not my lover.
    Stephanie: Yeah, but I totally HEART you.
    Maggie: Okay, deal. You die first, you draw me a heart. I die first, I draw you a heart. But, let’s be like eighty, okay.
    Stephanie: Totally wrinkled!
    [Dissolve in giggles.]

    1. Hi, Dalila!
      I’m so glad you had fun with this exercise. Just because the topics are heavy doesn’t mean that we can’t take pleasure in exploring them!
      You certainly seem drawn to writing about teens, and I think that is wonderful.

  14. Elana, I agree that books are a great way to tackle tough topics. I am definitely going to keep your exercise in mind for any fiction writing I do. It definitely made me think back to tough conversations with my sons through various ages (they are now 23 and 25).

    1. Dear Erika,
      I am glad the exercise may help you remember to go deep in your writing. Remember, you can always pull back in revision, if you need to. First drafts are a great place to go all in, get messy, and really explore.
      Happy Writing!

  15. Hello, Thank you for sharing this post! As a librarian, this topic is near and dear to my heart! I have always felt as though literature is a safe place to grow. Most of the concern about heavy topics comes from adults, who have the perspective and experience it takes to understand the depth of those “tough topics”. Younger readers, however, tend to only understand the treatment of those topics to the extent that they have some kind of real world experience with it. I read some pretty intense stuff as a kid. As an adult, I was surprised when I went back to some of those books and fully understood what I had glossed over. I remember sort of “feeling around the edges” of the story when it was over my head. I really like this exercise you’ve shared because it is such a thoughtful and benevolent way of helping the reader consider the heavy stuff. The heavy stuff is absolutely needed and wanted in literature for young people!

    1. Dear Audrey,
      I agree completely! I read indiscriminately and voraciously as a kid, and many of my books would not have passed the “appropriate” test of lots of teachers and librarians. But I wasn’t an adult, and, like you, I didn’t “get” everything the first time through. The books met me where I was, then. When I returned to them as an older reader, they met me in a different place.
      Thank you for joining us here today!

  16. This was a great post. I have a lot of kids that come from a trauma background and there will be a lot of tough topics that I will have to address with them. I liked this activity because you have think outside of the box and look at different type of reactions and honestly no one really ever wants to have these conversations because it makes people uncomfortable.
    Would you book be good for 3rd grade? We do the PACE character traits every month and my goal this year is to come up with one or two books that are good for each character trait per month and maybe yours would go well with one of them!

    1. Dear Jennifer,
      I’m so glad the post was helpful to you. Yes, we often avoid painful topics because they are painful. But, of course, avoiding them doesn’t take the pain away. I’m glad you are present for the kids in your community.
      Many third graders have read my books THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES and FAR FROM FAIR and have enjoyed them. Also, I have a chapter book, A BOY CALLED BAT, coming out in February 2017. Thank you in advance for sharing my books, and the books of the other writers here, with any readers they might help.

  17. Elaine – your prompt really struck a chord. I truly believe that literature should mirror life in all its glory and filthy ditches.
    There\’s a character in my WIP who is an alcoholic but I\’ve glossed over the dark details. The conversations generated from your exercise will help me to be more frank. And brave. It\’s essential.

  18. Thank you for this post. In light of recent events (Kate and Phil being disinvited from school visits) this is an important conversation.

    I agree with your position, Elana.

  19. Great exercise, Elana. I have been really struggling with how to approach the problem in my WIP. It’s very real and very disturbing. This helped a lot. Here is a snippet of my teen to teen discussion:
    “I don’t even understand Claire right now. One minute she’s all smiles and happy and the next she is all mopey and dramatic. I’m tired of it, Kim. Why is she so mad at Timmy, anyway? The poor guy can’t do anything right.”
    “Something isn’t right. Claire has always had a flare for the dramatic, but this is over the top, even for her. Whatever he did, it must’ve been a biggee. She’s not even coming down to the water to lounge on the raft. What’s up with that?”
    “I don’t know. Remember the other night, after were down the lake drinking in the garage? You know how suddenly Claire and Tim were gone and we all thought they went to make out? I wonder if something happened then. He is pretty territorial of her, and he is older than she is.”
    “Sarah, they have been together every summer since they were 9 and 12 years old! Tim is nearly 16 now, if they want to do something, they are going to do it, right? It shouldn’t cause a big fight. Besides, Timmy doesn’t seem to have any idea what’s wrong with Claire. He’s just as mopey as she is, following her around like a puppy even more than before. I just don’t get it.”
    “This is a crazy thought, but you know that whole, “No Means No” campaign you hear about at school? What if Claire didn’t say no, but didn’t say anything at all, and now she’s upset because things went too far. We need to get her to talk to us.”

  20. I am catching up today after traveling all weekend. I love this idea of finding your own “sweet spot” by exploring how differently your characters would deal with explaining issues!!

    I especially love this exercise because it seems that so much of what I’ve read this summer for MG kids does deal with tough issues. It’s interesting to see how the characters deal with and explain things differently as various ages discuss the issues: mom/daughter as well as the two siblings in SUMMERLOST and in THE SEVENTH WISH, parent/child and teen/teen friends in LILY AND DUNKIN, STICK AND STONES, etc.

    For me as a teacher and as a parent, these books with difficult issues often open doors that might stay closed otherwise – doors that open dialogue that needs to occur.

    I’ve yet to sit and apply these exercises to my own writing, but I’m loving reading the writing other campers have shared.

    Thank you!!

  21. I found this to be a very emotional task to complete. I chose to write about Cancer which frequently includes death.
    Below you’ll find a section I wrote from step 2.

    Mia stood in front of the fireplace at her grandfather’s country home. Atop the mantle sat a large silver picture frame that displayed a picture of a woman. Everyone told Mia that was her grandmother, but she didn’t know her. They talked about her a lot at holidays and in December for some reason. Mia heard her GiGi, her great grandmother, talk about the Cancer that killed the woman in the picture once when no one thought she was listening. She was suppose to be taking a nap, but she had snuck back downstairs to find her stuffed snowman whom she could not sleep without. It was late now, and she was supposed to be going upstairs to take a bath, but whenever she was at Paw Paw’s house she always got to stay up late, all the way until the sun went down.
    Just as Mia thought she had avoided her bath time for a second night, Paw Paw came around the corner from the kitchen.
    “Hey munchkin! You read for bath time?” Mia’s Paw Paw was a kind man. He always had a sparkle in his eye when he smiled at her.
    “Paw Paw, what is cancer?” Mia innocently questioned her devoted grandfather.
    “A killer,” was his quick reply, and the sparkle suddenly disappeared from his eye.
    “Why don’t the policemen stop him?” Mia pictured a big scary man with an angry face.
    “It isn’t that kind of killer. Cancer kills people with their own bodies. The policeman can’t stop something that attacks your body from the inside like a when you get a cold.”
    “It makes you sick?”
    “Yes, very VERY sick.”
    “Why don’t the doctors stop it?”
    “They try. But some killers can’t be stopped by the police or by doctors.”
    “That’s why I never met her?” Mia pointed to picture on the mantel.
    “Yes, but she knows you, and you can bet she loves you just as much as I do.” He smiled again, but with a different kind of sparkle in his eye. The kind of sparkle you get when you are both sad and happy at the same time and you can’t decide if you should cry or not.
    Mia took Paw Paw’s hand, and then the two walked up the stairs for a bath, a book, and bedtime.

  22. I’ve read most of Kate’s correspondence with the librarian regarding Seventh Wish. I definitely stand with Kate and her position. Somehow as adults we’ve come to believe that children should be shielded from every difficult topic, situation, and circumstance. As teachers, perhaps we err on the side of caution out of fear, as you mentioned–fear that kids will get upset or scared; fear that parents will get angry; fear that we won’t be able to “defend” our read-aloud choices. With so many responsibilities in the classroom, I think it’s incredibly easy for teachers to avoid any potential conflicts by taking the easy road and reading “safer” books to their kids. This discussion further clarifies for me the importance of knowing our students and making intentional literature choices that will help them learn about the world, not hide it from them.