How Can Stories Help Children Explore Difficult Subjects?
During a recent Twitter chat about children's fiction, I was surprised to see someone ask the question, 'Do the rules of children's writing create books that are too uniform?' Now, one of the reasons I love writing children's books is that there are no rules. All facets of human life and relationships, in all their variety and complexity, can be found in the pages of children's fiction.
If there were rules for writing children's fiction, one of the first ones might be to get rid of the parents. Think about all the children's books that quickly dispense with mum and dad in order to let the young hero or heroine set off on some death-defying adventure. But sadly for many children the most difficult journey they will ever have to face is the one heralded by the loss of a parent.
Writers have a duty not to try to avoid the difficult issues readers might be facing, but to help them to realise that they're not alone.
This difficult subject has been tackled in many great children's books, from The Lost Boys' Appreciation Society by Alan Gibbons to Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, a novel based on an original idea from the much-missed author Siobhan Dowd, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer when she conceived of the story and died before she could write it. In my forthcoming novel, The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, I tell the story of Albie, a boy who has lost his mother to cancer and his journey to come to terms with this loss.
Death, obviously, isn't the only difficult situation young readers may face. But with books about bullying (The Knife That Killed Me by Anthony McGowan), divorce (The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson), dementia (Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald), child carers (Dog Ears by Anne Booth), facial disfigurement (Wonder by R. J. Palacio), OCD (Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne) and PTSD (Heroic by Phil Earle), to name just a few, I can't think of an issue that young readers may encounter in their lives that they won't be able to see reflected in the fiction that they read.
Real life doesn't come with an age rating. Awful and tragic events can appear out of a clear blue sky to blight the lives of the very youngest amongst us. Children's writers have a duty not to try to avoid the difficult issues that our readers might be facing, but to help them to realise that they're not alone.
These books aren't manuals designed to show readers how to cope with the tragic situations that they're facing. They're stories and, like all the best stories, they show how people are changed by the events that befall them. They acknowledge the shock, anger and pain, but they also show that it's possible to go on. Stories help us to make sense of the world, even at its most random and cruel.
I think authors of children's fiction are the writers who are allowed to take the most risks in their writing, because we have a fearless audience. There's a quote from the writer Neil Gaiman which says, 'Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.' When we write about difficult topics, we go into the dark places with our readers and acknowledge that their pain is real, but also give them hope for the future.
All children deserve to be listened to; to have the chance to talk about their worst fears, their hopes and their dreams. Reading a book can be the start of an invaluable conversation.