If you follow the world of kid lit, you may have seen this recent Time article authored by Newbery medal recipient Matt de la Peña regarding honesty in writing for children. (The response from our ever-prolific Kate DiCamillo is worth every second of your time as well.)
Today, I am channeling those titans of kids lit so that I may crash on down into today’s topic like a self-immolating, gasoline-fueled comet.
I take reading and writing for kids’ books seriously, and on this path, I’ve tripped over something time and time again that I would like to address so that people might quit plopping this obstacle down on the road: kids aren’t idiots. Okay, maybe some kids are idiots⸺and we love those kids just as much⸺but what I’m getting at is that children are emotionally intelligent and don’t deserve to be sloppily spoon-fed lessons when they read.
Before you jump down my throat about how I sound like I attended a Waldorf institution, hear me out. You were a kid once, right? (You might still be one, in which case, get off of this blog, it’s not suitable for children, you little asshole.) Think back to something that happened when you were young⸺some great injustice that stuck with you through the years. Maybe a teacher didn’t believe you when you were being honest. Maybe a friend didn’t invite you to their birthday party. Just in case you are absolutely void of any human memories, then welcome, Mr. Zuckerberg, allow me to lend you one of mine:
I was at an arcade with two girls from Hong Kong that my family was hosting. I offered them the tickets I had won from the games only once at the beginning, to which they politely declined, stating that they wanted to see how many they could win alone. Later, I saw one of them drop a sizable bundle of their own tickets, and when I tried to return it to her, she got angry and accused me of being dishonest.
We climbed back onto the bus to go home, they sat far away from me, and I cried.
It was an instance when I had heard someone loud and clear on their initial rejection, yet when I tried to do the right thing later, they assumed I was being deliberately deceitful. As you can imagine, that hurt.
But here’s the thing: I knew instinctively that it hurt, and more importantly, I knew why: I had suffered an injustice of character. What had happened didn’t represent who I truly was, and it riled something in me that never settled back down (obviously).
Now, let’s replay that situation, and this time, when we’re settling down into the sweaty leather bus seats, I’m going to ask you to imagine that there was a chaperone at my arm saying, “They didn’t believe you. Do you know how much that should hurt your feelings? That hurts your feelings, right? Cause it should. That’s bad. What just happened was really awkward. Do you understand why that was awkward, sweetheart?”
No, you’re not allowed to punch the hypothetical adult in the nose.
Even though they have fresh minds compared to yours, children don’t need anyone to hold their hand through everything, especially when they don’t come to you for it. Children understand guilt. They understand betrayal, and right-and-wrong, and that soggy lump you get in your throat right after you receive a life-changing level of bad news. They might not have a lot of experience with it, but they don’t need a guide on how to feel any more than the rest of us. Their feelings, the way they interact with the world and experience it are just as valid as a person in their 30’s, or 50’s, or 80’s.
This is why, when I crack open a children’s book that tries so desperately to tackle a subject like, say, drug abuse, or death, and they dance around the subject so much that you can see sugar crystallizing on the soles of their feet, it drives me nuts. You cannot shield children. They know. They know right from wrong, they know people get addicted to drugs, and people die, and bad things happen. They see the same headlines, hopefully they study the same history at school that you did, the same genocides. More than ever, they live in a world where schools aren’t even safe. They know people fall out of love⸺hell, half of my friends’ parents growing up were divorced⸺and the more you try to shield these truths from them, the harder these topics will be to deal with once they’re past their formative years.
You are not doing a child any favors by censoring what they read.
You are not doing a child any favors by censoring how you write tough topics.