Dark Realities: What Can’t Be Said in Children’s Books
LARRY SIEMS: The PEN Children’s Book Committee is a group of professional writers who volunteer their time to advance children’s literature and protect freedom of expression: the right of children’s authors to express themselves freely and the right of young people to read diverse literature. Here’s an example of how I get to learn about what this committee accomplishes, quietly, day to day: PEN gives an award every year—a First Amendment Award—to somebody in the United States who has courageously defended the First Amendment as it applies to the written word. This year’s recipient is a librarian from Texas who took a stand in her own community to defend a young-adult book called It’s Perfectly Normal. And when the judges made their selection it was my honor to call her. So I get myself all geared up to announce that she is about to receive $25,000, and when I tell her, she shrieks. I start to go into my spiel about PEN and she says, “I know PEN. The PEN Children’s Book Committee was one of the first groups to come to my defense when this book was challenged and I made it clear that I wasn’t going to let it be pulled from the library shelves.”
Week after week, and month after month, the Freedom to Write Committee is called to First Amendment accident scenes, and often, when we arrive, the Children’s Book Committee is already there. I want to acknowledge their achievements. And, as the father of a twelve-year-old boy, I want to acknowledge everybody on this panel and their colleagues who write for young adults. I think all parents of young adults are confounded by the complicated questions that this panel is here to discuss. And it’s a remarkable credit to these writers that I am able to go to sleep at night not having to worry so much about how to guide my son. He reads avidly, and because of the literature that he reads, he is often the one who’s able to articulate to me, and navigate for me, the way through crisis in the contemporary world. I want to pay tribute to the great writing that’s being done for young adults and to testify to its tremendous impact on broadening the emotional vocabulary of young people.
VERA B. WILLIAMS: I just want to invoke the audience that isn’t here. Larry mentioned them: the readers. Of course we also are the readers of these books, but the very big audience at this moment may be lying on their stomachs on the floor or curled up in awkward positions—never with enough light, right?—eating, and lounging in the potato chips they’ve crunched, music playing, reading these books.
We can all remember being those readers, and we read then about life with an intensity and an appetite that we, perhaps, never will have again in our lives.
WENDY LAMB: The topic tonight is timely, yet it’s also the oldest topic in this business. We talk about it again and again: What is appropriate for young readers? Children of course know that life is scary. Look at nursery rhymes and fairy tales, the first things they come to know. Yet we can never relax with what we give them. And one of the great challenges is knowing when a child is ready for what book. And for this we publishers generally rely on adults. We rely on teachers, librarians, and parents—the people who know children best. But no matter what we do, we cannot control how a child gets access to a book, and that is always a risk, because a child who’s not ready for a really tough book is going to have a very different experience than the author hoped readers would have.
I’ve turned down children’s books that had edgy material because the shock value prevented me from getting to know the characters. I love young-adult fiction because we can be more open-ended, more realistic. It seems that most people who write for young adults say, “I was an outsider and I wish I’d had a book like this when I was a kid.” It’s interesting that nobody who had a happy high school experience seems to be drawn to write for this age group. Of course adolescence is a bleak time. And I think a lot of the readers are more comfortable with the bleak material than we adults are. They can handle it better.
I would love to publish any book that recognizes the complexity of life and that allows for weakness and ambiguity in the hero, and an open ending. Not all the threads have to be tied up, not all the solutions are the ones the reader wanted. The ending does not have to be happy. But the story should demonstrate the human urge to move forward, to persevere, and to endure. And kids have an endless appetite, as we know, for stories about survival. This is the message they seek—how, how, how? It’s important that the reader finish a book with a sense that the characters believe in themselves, that they’ll survive somehow, and struggle on toward a less painful situation. This is what life is going to ask of them. Sometimes the world of the story is so harsh that the character must find this sense in a private and interior place. I feel that a book that ends by destroying that hope in the main character is not a book for children.
PATRICIA REILLY GIFF: Listen to the subject of these books please. Lyn’s friend David murders his parents and later kills himself. Another one: Alex is arrested for selling drugs to an undercover agent; Matt must deal with the death of his mother and sister, who were killed by a drunk driver. Weeble is betrayed by an adult she thought was a friend but whose affection suggested sexual activity. Janet is raped by a disturbed boy, leading to knowledge of her lesbian relationship with Peggy. Tough subjects? New and shocking? Sound like TV dramas made to titillate? Not at all. These books were written for adolescents between 1978 and 1985, eighteen to twenty-five years ago. They were written by children’s authors whose names are not only recognizable but in some cases also beloved, and certainly there are many here tonight who know the authors and the books that I’ve mentioned. For many years, writers for young people haven’t flinched from talking about subjects that are difficult or challenging, but are some subjects actually taboo?
I have to tell you some of my own experience. A couple of years ago in Texas a librarian came up to me and said, “It’s a shame about Lily’s Crossing,” and I, who had just received the Newbery Honor Award for Lily was understandably upset. And she said, you had to mention the “damn piano.” I said, “But Lily said that deep inside her head, and she said if Gram even knew about it she would be in trouble.” The lady from Texas said, “I cannot recommend this book.” And just yesterday a librarian looked at a new book of mine called Pictures of Hollis Woods. It has the most wonderful cover. It’s a pair of legs, and you just see the girl’s shorts (Sister Georgina, when I was in high school, would have had a fit—we were not allowed to call them legs, we had to call them limbs). The librarian told me that she hadn’t bought the book because just from the cover she knew there must be issues. A dear friend of mine had an invitation to a library rescinded when it was discovered that she had used the term “mosquito ass.” I was so glad I didn’t use that.
My world, as you can imagine from what I’ve just said, is really the world of the young reader: the kids who are middle-grade readers or picture-book readers. And that’s very different from the world of young-adult readers. I want to tell you about the kids I write for. I was a reading teacher for twenty years working with troubled kids. There were two who committed murder, another who died of alcohol poisoning. When I read a story about a cat having nine lives, one of these kids threw the cat out the window to see if that were true, and her aunt heated the iron and put it on her back. These kids knew about almost everything there is to know in the world. Surprisingly enough, they didn’t want to read serious books. They wanted to read books that they could laugh over. But they loved to write about dark and dismal topics. And when I told them they could write anything they wanted, their stories were filled with cruelty and violence and hair-raising language. But there are also kids across the country in third or fourth grade who have only the vaguest knowledge of menstruation or intercourse, whose vocabulary doesn’t even include the word “stupid” because they’ve been taught it’s a bad word.
So what are those of us who write for the young to do? What is appropriate for middle-grade and the young young-adult reader? Appropriate. A word we could argue about until next year. Amy Kellman at the Carnegie Library says, “There is no topic, with the exception of pornographic material or erotica, that is barred as long as it is handled in a sensitive way.” And I think that’s about as true as we can get. Another librarian says, “Anything goes, as long as there’s a redeeming quality in the main character of the story.” And I think that’s true too—which brings me to hope. Because here, certainly, is the difference between books written for children and books written for adults.
I want to mention two books that deal with tough subjects. The first one, Nine Candles, by Maria Testa, is about a little boy, Raymond, whose mother is in prison, and he goes to the prison on his seventh birthday. The guard has to light the candles on his cake because his mother isn’t allowed to use matches. In the end he goes to bed, sad and angry, but, “I close my eyes,” he says, “and dream my one dream. Momma is carrying a cake, a chocolate cake, my favorite cake in the whole world. She remembered. It’s my birthday cake and Momma puts it down in front of me. I look up at her and smile and I take a deep breath and blow out nine candles.” So there is hope. He knows that his mom is going to come home in two years. As hard as it is, the book is written for very young children.
I also want to mention What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman, which won a Newbery Honor Award. Listen: “When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved. It wasn’t the crying that woke him up, it was some other sound—what was it?—something else that made him spring up in bed, lean back on his elbows, and open his eyes wide, just in time to see Van reach into the crib and grab Nin and throw her, fire her across the room like a missile, like a bullet, like a shooting star, like a football. No; like nothing Jamie’d ever seen before.” Can it get any more difficult than that? But I promise you that this is a book of such courage and such hope and such triumph that if you read it, you will agree there isn’t much you can’t write for children if you do it in a sensitive way.
ADAM RAPP: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the world is going through right now, what kids are up against, the questions that they have. I’m thirty-four, but I still have a problem doing my laundry and I don’t pay my bills on time. A case of arrested development. I feel that I’m writing as a kid, still, in a lot of ways. For me the process of writing young-adult literature is discovering the world through a sixteen-year-old’s eyes or a twelve-year-old’s eyes, and I get to rediscover it every time I enter another character. I write first-person novels, so for me it’s about becoming a thirteen-year-old boy again, or an eleven-year-old girl, which is really interesting.
I visited a high school class in Chicago which was largely populated by ESL students. They were forced to read my novel The Buffalo Tree, which is sort of seasoned with hip-hop, and most of those kids said it was the first book they had ever read. And I said, “What do you do instead of reading?” And one kid said, “I watch VH1,” and one kid said, “I play Playstation 2.” I’m trying to give kids like these a reason to want to read. I was not a big reader. I was not a big student. When I was fifteen, I picked up The Catcher in the Rye, and it was the first book I ever read forty pages of. And then someone stole it from my room. I went to a military academy, and I lost the book—it was stolen off my bed when I went to the bathroom. I finally got it back, and it was the first book I ever finished. And I remember how exhilarating it was to identify with this kid who was so disillusioned and so confused and so angry—it was the first time I had read anything that made me feel I had a friend. And that was my entry point into being a reader and falling in love with stories.
We need to write the truth—and the truth might be what I see at Tompkins Square Park, which is a twelve-year-old boy watching his father play basketball while smoking his father’s marijuana. The truth might be a child murdering another child: In Flint, Michigan, a little kid walks into his classroom and shoots another seven-year-old. I think that kids should not be protected from the truth. The truth is bleak sometimes. The truth is difficult. I wrote a sex scene in Little Chicago where the kid is buying a gun off of his sister’s boyfriend and doesn’t have enough money, so he performs a sexual act to pay for the gun. I use “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as something that he disappears into so that he can get though it. He dissociates and goes out of his body and just starts singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” And there were two paragraphs of description that I fought for and ultimately lost. It probably, realistically, made the difference between being a banned book and not a banned book. But I regret it, and as I continue to get older and wiser and more cantankerous, I will fight harder for paragraphs like the ones that we cut.
I think we should do a really good job of telling those stories really well. People criticize my work because they feel that it’s not hopeful. I want my books to give the feeling that people can still converge toward love, despite the bleak world, despite being up against low-income housing or going through puberty in a weird way or having a venereal disease or AIDS. It’s really important, in my work at least, that there is some kind of search for love—to be loved, or to belong. That’s what I’m most interested in, and I think that is what’s profoundly interesting to young adults. They’re identifying with the tough subject matter, but that they’re hopeful. That juxtaposition is what keeps me interested, what keeps me wanting to fight through the gatekeepers.
WALTER DEAN MYERS: We’ve been doing an awful lot of pretending in this country, a lot of pretending that it’s one society. We’re trying to ignore all the “others.” We’re trying to identify with a small, mythical group that does things the right way, goes to the right schools, and has the right values. But in a city like New York, a wonderful city, you have a dropout rate that is devastating. In some schools, 80 percent of the students drop out. Only 16 percent of the students pass the Regents Exams. So you’re getting in this country a tremendous divide. In 1982 Ishmael Reed said that this country would be divided not by religion, not by race, but by those who are part of the system and those—that growing population—who are not in the system. A recent justice-system report said that 28 percent of all black males will spend some time in a prison. And if 28 percent of the men are in prison, where are their children? What is happening? We’re pretending that none of this happens.
I visit prisons and subscribe to prison magazines and see a huge number of people who are grim. You know, these people have families. It’s depressing. For me, that depression eases when I can recognize the humanity of the prisoner with whom I’m speaking. When I can recognize that humanity, then I say, “Yes, you are human, I am a human; we are human beings.” And this is an increasingly important concept for a child who is the son of someone in prison, or the daughter. What has to be reestablished for these children is that humanity.
Once I went to a school in Brooklyn and walked through a metal detector and had my ID checked. It was a predominantly black school, and I was there with my white knight uniform on telling these children, “Oh, you should read this good black book.” Some of the kids said they did not want to read black books. I was shocked. Then I began to listen to these kids, and I found out that they didn’t want to read most of these black books because the books pitied them and took a liberal attitude of “Oh, aren’t these kids wonderful.” But when they found a book that celebrated their humanity, they embraced that book.
I want to reach out to the children who are not being reached, who don’t turn on the television and find themselves there. I want to be able to reach these children. And I want them to say, “Yes, this is me, and it’s okay to be me. It’s okay to be me.” This is what we can do with literature; we can give people hope, not because the ending is upbeat but because their humanity is recognized. And they understand, sometimes for the first time, that even though they have AIDS, or they’re in jail, or life looks very bad for them, they are still part of the human condition.
CHRISTOPHER PAUL CURTIS: I do a lot of school visits and I’ve discovered that children are much more sophisticated than we as adults give them credit for. Usually on school visits, when I read from The Watsons Go to Birmingham, I choose the first chapter, which is light and funny. But not long ago some fourth graders set me up. They said, “Read chapter 6.” Now, when I wrote the book, I didn’t think of it as a book for children; I thought of it as an adult book narrated by a ten-year-old. But then when I sent it to my editor, she told me that it was a children’s book, so we changed a lot of the language. There’s a thirteen-year-old boy who is officially a teenage juvenile delinquent, and he sounded like the juvenile delinquents I grew up with. So we changed the language, but I did keep certain words—nothing more than “hell,” “damn,” and “ass.” That was it.
So there I was at this school, and the kids very attentively sat there and read chapter 6, and I said, “Okay,” and started to read it aloud. I don’t think there should be limitations on anything that is written, but then I got to the part where a child who wants to hang out with his older brother says, “Let’s do some cussing together.” And the older brother says, “Kiss my ass.” These fourth graders were looking at me and I read, “and then Byron said . . .” and I couldn’t get the rest of the sentence out. And the kids said, “Go ahead, we’ve already heard it; say it.” But it made me think. It made me stop and think. I don’t know if my perspective is changing because I have an eleven-year-old daughter. I don’t know if it’s changing because I’m getting older or because I have sympathy for teachers now that I’ve spent time in classrooms. I do know that it’s changing.
But I think it’s really hard to shock or to surprise children. Last year I went to Kenya and visited a private school. Usually I speak to kids who are in fifth or sixth grade, but this time they had me with second graders. These Kenyan children were wonderful. They were polite. When you walk into the classroom, they all stand up and they won’t sit down till you tell them to. I started to read my book. One of the things that Bud says in the book is “shucks”—he says “shucks” a lot. I could see that they weren’t getting it, so I explained that “shucks” is something you say in the United States if you’re frustrated, if things aren’t going the way you want them to go. I said, “There must be something that you say,” and one of the little second-graders raised his hand and said, “We say, ‘Oh, shit.’ ”
A funny moment, but this is a serious subject. My first two books were for middle readers, children about ten, eleven, twelve. The book I’m working on now is for young adults, and I find it much more liberating to write for that age group. There are so many different things that you can put into a young-adult book. I’m sometimes asked, “When are you gonna write a real book, an adult book?” But I believe that the younger your readers, the more difficult it is to know what is appropriate and what isn’t.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: I feel like a bit of an outsider since obviously I’ve done most of my writing in what we call adult fiction. But I was drawn to writing children’s books, and I’ve done two books for children and two for young adults now. We could talk about the distinction between writing for “adults” and writing for children. It’s really more like a spectrum. Some of the great classics in our literature are ambiguous works, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which I first read when I was eight or nine years old. My heart was pierced by those stories—I identified so passionately with Alice. I was a farm girl growing up in a poor area in upstate New York, and I had not the slightest idea that Alice was a British girl of a certain economic level, really upper-middle class. I identified with her and was so impressed that she had a certain measure of courage, an integrity. She was really a tough little girl, in contrast to the way I felt myself, sort of watery and wavery, and not nearly so distinct. And then when I was a little older I was reading the Black Stallion series, and again, very violently and passionately, and with all my heart, I identified. I think when you’re younger there’s almost not a barrier between yourself and what you’re reading. You just flow into the work.
The world of children’s books has such magic and beauty, just surpassing beauty and imagination and originality. It’s stunning to encounter this world if you’ve been steeped in twentieth-century literary irony. I have sort of a tragic view of history—who would not have a tragic view of history?—and, when I’m writing adult fiction, I have to take a certain tone. I feel that, to be true to that reality, irony is, maybe, the mode of discourse. But with children’s literature you’re in a different realm. Children have not yet been baptized, or cursed, by history. Very small children live in, essentially, an ahistorical world. My first children’s book, called Come Meet Muffin!, was about my own cat. It was shamelessly sentimental, and Mark Graham did wonderful paintings, original work. So I was taken from an almost monochromatic world or irony and catapulted into this magical world in which my text was very small at the bottom of the page, and the art was very, very beautiful. And in that world animals can think, and animals can talk, and animals can reason just as well as, if not better than, human beings. And children interrelate with animals as if they were equals, which you don’t at all find in adult fiction.
We don’t have happy endings in life, but when you’re writing for children from the age of zero to eight you may as well be happy—because that’s it, you know. Then we move to the adult world, and as I’ve said to many people—particularly to women—many of us feel, in our hearts, that we’re about fourteen years old. We feel like typical adolescents, we’re very insecure, we really wonder what we look like and what clothes to put on. These questions, which bedeviled me in junior high and high school, I would not have guessed would still be with me so many decades later. Adolescence is also a time of irreverence—adolescents are very funny, they’re very quick to understand hypocrisy and cut through nonsense.
I’ve been working for many years with older adolescents—I shouldn’t call them that because they think of themselves as young men and young women—at Princeton University. But they have all the best qualities of adolescents, by which we mean questioning authority, being funny, having extraordinary energy, and imagination, and above all idealism. They work very hard, and they’re idealistic. So when I write for young adults I’m excited; I feel that I can create characters with whom I identify, who are not burdened by the typical responsibilities of being an adult. Not burdened by history. My students evolve within a few months—I can see them changing. I feel very optimistic about that age group. When you’re writing mainstream or literary fiction for adults you have to be realistic about the capacity—or incapacity—for change. Because many people are bedeviled by the past. They’re living in a historical context that they can’t readily escape. But when I go to young-adult fiction and children’s fiction—when I read it and when I write it—I feel I’m in a much more aerated and capacious atmosphere.
The structure and the style and the language of young-adult novels are very different from my usual writing. Obviously some young-adult novels are idiosyncratic and atypical, but generally I think of them as being fairly cinematic. I’m not burdened by the need to contextualize in the historical sense. I don’t have to describe things. I love to describe, actually, and I love to read writers like Dickens and Thomas Hardy. I love those passages, but if I put them in my young-adult novel my editor says, “This is very nice, Joyce, but kids don’t need to be told what a high school cafeteria looks like, they just know. They love dialogue, and they like things to move along; the chapter ends and then you move to the next chapter.” It’s a forward motion without much looping back; in adult fiction the layering is very much part of what you’re doing. You’re doing a number of things simultaneously. With a novel for young adults, you’re moving fluidly and swiftly along, and the characters themselves do the thinking and talking. The author doesn’t have to do it. There’ll be a time, maybe near the end of the novel, when the characters will talk with one another and they will say what you want the reader to know. In adult fiction, what you want the reader to know may be implied. And adult fiction can be irresolute and frustrating. You can read a whole adult novel and say, “What was that all about?” Young-adult fiction is overt; there’s nothing coy, there’s no subterfuge, and then it has an ending that ends right at the end. There’s a last sentence and that’s it.