Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Faculty Voices: Anne Ursu

            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 criticismand 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 workthey 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 Coleridgein 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 toto 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.

Madeline L'Engle
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.


  1. I was thinking about this very thing this morning! I've heard adults talking about MG and YA authors whose MCs sound too old, they don't sound like kids. And yet kids love these books! So, maybe kids aren't as dumb as some people think they are. They are capable of handling a lot more than we give them credit for.

  2. Great post. The problem I deal with as a kidlit editor on a daily basis is balancing librarian/parent desires for books with the desires and needs of the kids who actually read them; our product has to be appealing to the people who buy the books, librarians primarily, without alienating our core reading audience. It's a nebulous balance and no matter how safe a book might be there's always going to be some very outraged and very outspoken parent or librarian who insists on being offended and making a lot of negative noise solely because they dislike the subject being explored.

    Another interesting issue is book reviewers and their occasional tendency to lose objectivity. Booklist, Kirkus, even SLJ often award stars to books based on criteria that they appreciated as adult readers for adult-centric reasons. It's particularly maddening to read a scathingly negative book review only to see the last sentence read "But kids will love it." Maddening.

  3. Anne, what's the name of your friend's book?

  4. Seven Stories Up, out in Jan! It's soooo good.

  5. Bravo! I find it fascinating the way adults review kids' books vs. how the kids do. Adults, for example, criticize THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE for its inconsistency (e.g., if it's been winter for 100 years, where do the Beavers get their potatoes?). I so didn't care about that when my 10-year-old self fell for that book like a lovesick teenager. It was all about the story. Thanks for saying this so well!

  6. I think you should send this to Horn Book for publication there, too, Anne. Wonderfully well said.

  7. You are so wise, Anne. Especially when you said "They'd so much rather you sat next to them in all the uncertainty than you pretended it wasn't there."
    That's what I remember from being a kid and what books meant to me.

  8. This is wonderful. And the bit about the 4th-grader patiently explaining, 'It's a metaphor, mom', cracked me up :)

    Kids have far more imagination than adults, so can fill in the gaps and live in the story more, and most importantly, suspend disbelief more easily than adults, so they don't worry about small things not being explained fully. They're too busy enjoying the story world as a whole. They see the bigger picture. And of course, they still believe in magic a tiny bit...

  9. I agree: this is terrific and deserves a wider audience. Send it to Roger Sutton.

  10. This happens with picture books and chapter books — "This book is too mean!" "This book doesn't teach the right lessons!" — and YA books — "This book is too dark!" "This book will encourage teens to drink/smoke/take drugs/date carnies!" I just read a professional review of Scieszka's BATTLE BUNNY that was all about how parents won't like the book because it's subversive and funny and might be difficult to read out loud (apparently, this reviewer never had to read The Magic School Bus over and over again to a very persnickety 6-year-old.) First of all, *I* like subversive and funny books. Also, why take half of your review to talk about what parents may or may not like instead of talking about the quality of the book? This is, as you say, more about what adults can't handle and less about what the kids can.

  11. Anne,

    I found you via my old buddy Aaron Starmer linking to this post via Twitter. Great stuff.

    Grab me at if you are looking for a website facelift, I would love to help out if you are open for a change!

    1. Oh, Matt...I sent people here to discuss the article. I don't doubt you do some great web design, but let's keep on topic.

  12. This was perfect to hand out to my Education majors taking Writing for Children. They are guilty of all the "too this, too that" criticism and need such an articulate explanation celebrating the sad and dark sides. Thank you, Anne!

  13. Fabulous post! I completely agree that you need to honor the intelligence of young readers, and their ability to read hard things. I remember that 5th and 6th grade were the years we read such books as "Number the Stars" and "Out of the Dust." These are wonderful books, and they deal with some extremely heavy topics. I feel as though there is a general (but thankfully dwindling with time) thought that a difficult topic in the context of history is fine for middle grade fiction, but emotionally trying topics within the context of modern day life are going to be too much for young readers to handle. But when you talk to the readers themselves, they make no such distinction. So, in conclusion, I love this post.

  14. Anne, you've beautifully expressed a subject I happen to be very passionate about---not just in reference to subject matter in books for children---but in how we teach and raise our children, in general.

    I do believe that certain subject matter should be age-appropriate as far as how it's addressed (as far as how graphic certain things should be), but to coddle and shield children from the matters of life does more harm than good, whether it's scraping a knee, getting in a fight, . From the time children are very young, they experience a wide variety of emotions through all types of life experiences. If avoidance is the protocol, children can't grow to be balanced adolescents or adults able to cope with life.

    "Bullying" is not the only difficult subject that needs to be talked about; it is one of many, and the truth is, most discussions are "human" discussions for LIFETIMES, which should begin in childhood and continue. And also, age is not the only indicator as to how a person absorbs or interprets subject matter---it has more to do with maturity and life experience. A child (actually ANY person) will understand what they read, see, hear, etc. according to their OWN level of understanding at that given time. I also think that, if there is concern about a subject matter, the parents, teachers, librarians and whomever adult is involved, should use the books, etc. as tools to OPEN discussion about all these matters the close-minded people want to consider closed.

    Now, I also don't want to appear liberal, because I often lean toward conservative ways of thinking and living, dependent on the subject matter, but "dark" or "touchy" subjects shouldn't be avoided. They should simply be handled appropriately.

    Thanks, Anne, for broaching this subject in the way you have. It's SO important!