craft review by Kate O’Shaughnessy
Back in January, two popular children’s book authors—Matt de la Peña and Kate DiCamillo—engaged in a discourse about the importance of including tough subject matter in children’s books. (Read Matt’s essay: “Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness.”. And Kate’s: “Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Sad.”)
Specifically, de la Peña addressed a decision to keep an illustration in his picture book, LOVE, that showed a boy hiding beneath a piano with his dog while his parents argued across the room. In the illustration, there’s an empty Old Fashioned glass sitting on top of the piano, which hints that the argument was driven by alcohol-related reasons.
This is a heavy truth to include in a picture book for such young readers, and it was a decision de la Peña and his illustrator, Loren Long, didn’t take lightly. A gatekeeper in the industry even said they wouldn’t support the book unless the image was “softened.”
But ultimately, they decided to keep it.
Because, as de La Peña writes, “Maybe instead of anxiously trying to protect our children from every little hurt and heartache, our job is to simply support them through such experiences. To talk to them. To hold them.”
So how can we present difficult subject matter in a way that’s appropriate for young readers? Or, in Kate DiCamillo’s words, “How do we tell the truth and make that truth bearable?”
Less is more. Show only what you need in order to get the message across.
In LOST BOYS, the year is 1982 and 12-year-old Reza has just enlisted as a soldier in the Iraq-Iran War and has no idea the horror that is to come. In the book, there is a moment of extreme violence—true violence, that really happened in the past—that the rest of the story hinges upon.
In the scene, the boys—approximately sixty of them, all children—are tied together with rope. They are in the desert, with the goal of taking an encampment that is across the way, on the horizon. The officer has commanded them to run down the dune and straight ahead.
What the boys don’t know is that their bodies are being used to clear—and therefore blow up—the landmines hidden beneath the sand, so the real soldiers can proceed without danger.
We’d only been jogging along for a few minutes when it happened. I heard it before I felt it—a deep booming noise. Then high-pitched screams.
A huge fireball exploded near the front of the line, where the first boys were running.
It reminded me of the cloud I’d seen during breakfast, but it wasn’t fluffy or peachy. It was deep orange like hot lava—its billowed edges were jet black.
“Keep moving, boys,” snarled a voice from behind.
Keep moving? Was he serious? My eardrums throbbed with a scream. In a second that lasted an hour, I realized it was mine.
In that same second, adrenaline sped through my body like a match lighting draw straw.
Then I understood. We would never get rifles. We weren’t tied together to keep from getting lost. We were tied together so that when the truth hit—hit like a kick in the solar plexus—we couldn’t run away. Ebi and I—and all these other boys—we weren’t soldiers. We were legs and arms they didn’t mind losing. We were here to die. We were human rags, walking straight into a minefield to wipe it clean.
I tried to turn, to stop where I was and yell, but I was dragged into hell by the boys who hadn’t figured it out.
Another mine exploded in front of Ebi’s line. He looked back at me, and I saw the exact moment of recognition on my best friend’s face.
It was the last thing I saw.
My feet left the ground and I flew through the air.
A searing pain shot through my lungs. Then I felt nothing at all.” (page 99)
Middle grade—and younger—is not the place for gratuitous violence or unnecessary gore. So while Rosenblatt showcases an extremely violent event, she does so deftly and with restraint. She gives only enough details to get the message across, and she does it mostly by focusing on emotional resonance instead of specific physicality. There’s no description of blood or death, because it’s not needed nor is it appropriate. In describing traumatic events, less is definitely more.
The most important variable is hope.
The idea of using children’s bodies as a way of clearing landmines is a truly horrific thing to process—for adults and children alike. But what brings Rosenblatt’s book out of darkness and into the light is hope—Reza’s hope for a better future, filled with music, which is his one true passion. In fact, music lifts Reza’s spirits throughout the story, through the violence, through his experiences at a prisoner-of-war camp. Even when he’s coping with the aftermath of the violence he was subjected to, he thinks of it in terms of music. His dreams and hopes of becoming a musician are what buoy him.
The thing about children’s stories is that no matter how dark they become, they must always end on a hopeful note. Because that’s the way children should approach their lives—the way we all should approach our lives—with the knowledge that it’s never a lost cause.
And so says Reza’s friend and teacher Miles O’Leary: “Have hope, man. It’s all you can do.”
Never write from a place of bitterness, anger, or hate. In her essay, Kate DiCamillo ponders how E.B. White could write CHARLOTTE’S WEB, a book with such a sad ending, and somehow still make it feel bearable. And the only answer she can come up with is love:
E. B. White loved the world. And in loving the world, he told the truth about it — its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we were not alone.
Like E.B. White’s love for his characters, Rosenblatt’s love for her protagonist, Reza, shines through her prose. She writes the book not driven solely by anger at what happened to children during the war, but by compassion for her character.
Maybe the very best thing we can do as writers is to tell the truth. But we must also tell the truth from a place of hope and love. We must love the world, love our characters, and let the that love shine through the darkness.
Kate O’Shaughnessy writes middle grade fiction and lives in Berkeley, California with her husband. She’s an active member of SCBWI, former line cook, and lover of every single funny animal video the internet has to offer.