But What About the Children?
My friend Laurel wrote an absolutely beautiful book about a girl whose grandmother has had a bad life and is pretty angry at the world. Through the events of the book, the girl helps her grandmother, and it's really lovely and a terrific friendship story and if I'd had this book when was a kid I would have slept with it under my pillow every night.
I was surprised when Laurel told me she got a review that said the book was "too sad." Sure, there is sadness, but the book is really affirming and lovely. It's one of those books that feels like it's your best friend, and helps you be in the world. It's only too sad if we think kids should only be exposed to happiness at all times, or, as Laurel said, "At what age do kids magically become able to deal with sadness?"
I've seen middle grade books criticized by adult readers for leaving things for the reader to figure out, for not having perfect happily-ever-after endings. They get knocked for being too depressing, for using too many big words, for featuring parental characters who are too clueless. Girl protagonists are "too angry" or "too self-absorbed." The issues raised are "too heavy," the books "too earnest," "too quiet," "too hard," "too far-reaching," "too strange," and it is all too too much for the reader.
Except it's never the readers themselves saying these things.
Our critical discourse in middle grade is sometimes much more about what the reviewer believes children's books should be rather than about engaging with the book itself and the literature as a whole. When we say a book is "too sad," "too scary," "too complicated;" when we demand that endings are perfectly happy and all tied up; when we demand that the themes not be too weighty or the characters not face too much hardship; we are projecting our own biases onto the book, and using them to prescribe what books for this age range can or cannot do. This is nannying, not literary criticism—and it doesn't give kids much credit.
I've written books for adults and I've been asked a lot why I write for kids now. And one of the big reasons is that you have so much more freedom in writing for kids; this audience has no prejudices about how their books should work—they just want a good story. You can play with language and structure and narration and magic all you want, and they'll go with you cheerfully. I'm often bemused by the way some adults talk about fantasy for young readers, trying to pry open the hood of the magic and study the mechanism, and if they can't, that's a flaw in the book. If The Phantom Tollbooth were put out today adults would say it's irreparably flawed because we never find out where the tollbooth comes from. But we're not supposed to; it doesn't matter to the story.
Kids get that mystery and uncertainty are part of stories. They get that some questions don't need answers. And they get that stories don't exist in the same literal space as life; or, as a fourth grade girl once told me, "My mom said she didn't get that fantasy world, and so I explained to her that it was a metaphor."
Last week, Laura Ruby sent me a link to a post on negative capability. This is John Keats's phrase for, in the post's author's words, "the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity." Keats wrote that Negative Capability is, "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason ...." (That irritable reaching was meant to be a dig on Coleridge—in the 19th Century, this is how people dissed each other.)
Keats was using the term to describe the particular genius of Shakespeare, but I think kids have negative capability. As Laura pointed out, they have to—to them the world is a mystery that keeps unfolding. They know that not everything makes sense, and they know that questions don't always have answers. You can't pretend the world isn't sad sometimes, because they know better. You can't tell them everything ends perfectly, because they are way smarter than that. You can't tell them something is too complicated for them, because what's more complicated than growing up? And unlike adults, they don't have systems of denial built up; they just have to live in the senselessness of it. They'd so much rather you sat next to them in all the uncertainty than you pretended it wasn't there.
One of the best things you can do for a child is honor his capabilities. For middle grade writers, that means writing the best story you can in the way it needs to be written, and not worrying about being "too" anything. Whenever anyone asks Kate DiCamillo about the big words and challenging themes and complex storytelling and sadness in her books she says, "I never talk down to children."
These kids are capable of rich, challenging literature full of weighty themes, emotionally challenging subjects, complex wit and wordplay, the surreal and the fantastic and questions without answers. They see sadness and hardship in their lives, and suffer when adults don't acknowledge that. They're capable of so much, and when we say a book is "too" something for all children everywhere, are we really talking about our kids' limitations or our own? Or, as Madeline L'Engle said, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”