New Paths in Writing

Why Telling the Truth is the Only Path for Writers

How great — and honest — writing has helped a new generation of young people deal with tragedy.

By Laura Backes, co-founder Writing Blueprints

When Love — a new picture book from Matt de la Peña and illustrator Loren Long — was first published, it came under criticism because of one of the illustrations showed a child hiding under a piano while his parents had an alcohol-fueled argument. In his Time magazine essay, “Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness,” Matt said this:

 

In the book world, we often talk about the power of racial inclusion — and in this respect we’re beginning to see a real shift in the field — but many other facets of diversity remain in the shadows.

For instance, an uncomfortable number of children out there right now are crouched beneath a metaphorical piano. There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one.

 

As writers for children, we often feel the need to protect our audience. We want to create a place within our books that’s safe, happy, and lets readers be kids for as long as possible. And that’s not always a bad thing. We aspire to give the youngest readers a secure foundation as they begin to learn about the world.

But as they grow, our readers come to understand that life has many layers, some uplifting, some heartbreaking. And to pretend those layers don’t exist undermines the most noble purposes of books: to empower readers to face life’s challenges with strength, compassion, and the knowledge they are not alone. To stand up for themselves when they’ve been wronged. To stand up for someone else when they’ve been bullied. And to treat each other with kindness and respect.

If children have the opportunity to work through interior struggles of their own — and gain empathy for the interior struggles of others — in their books from an early age, they’ll be better equipped to overcome the obstacles the world hurls at them as they grow up. Which brings me to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

No book can ever truly prepare you for witnessing the massacre of 17 of your classmates and teachers. But books can help you survive the aftermath. It’s because of authors like Ellen Hopkins, Jason Reynolds, Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Lauren Oliver, S.E. Hinton, R.J. Palacio, Jacqueline Woodson, Stephen Chbosky, Angie Thomas and many others that these teenagers didn’t curl up in defeat. They’ve grown up reading books that didn’t try to hide the world from them, but instead showed them characters who overcame tremendous challenges and arrived at a place of hope. They devoured stories about their peers who chose to get back up after the world knocked them down, and in doing so became better versions of themselves. By reading about adversity, these students internalized strength. And now they’re going to change the world.

Yes, the students of MSD High School have some advantages. They have tremendous support from their families and community. They are well-educated and articulate. Their school library is well-stocked with books. But if we decide as a community of writers that every child and teen deserves these same advantages, we can go a long way toward making that happen. And it starts with the stories we write.

If you insist on creating young adult fiction where your characters have nothing to worry about beyond getting a date for the prom, you’re insulting your audience. If you refuse to put any type of conflict in your picture books, young readers will have nowhere to turn when they feel sad or alone. That doesn’t mean you can’t write happy books. The world is full of beauty and joy, and we need stories that acknowledge that as well. But life is messy and complicated and unpredictable, and exploring the dark as well as the light within the safety of a book can help prepare readers for life’s challenges. Kids are aware of much more than we realize. To pretend otherwise in their books does them a great disservice.

Our motto at WriteForKids/WritingBlueprints is “Change the World with Your Words.” Now, more than ever, we believe this to be true. Keep writing, and empower your readers to change the world for us all.

24 Comments

  • The more the kids know the more they can help themselves and others. Instead of some of the tragedies kids face being pushed under the rug, if they are brought up and talked about maybe some or most of the tragedies can be prevented because they’ll have support.
    Very inspiring and needs to be shared!

  • Thank you for writing about the Truth. I appreciate the list of authors to read. My grandson at age six and with autism asked if he could write on the windows of the two cars in the garage. He wrote about wearing red for education. Then he signed his name and his four year old brother’s name. It is stunning to see how empowered these kids are at an early age. Yes, blame it on the books they are reading and the authors who give them the truth.

  • Your article, Laura, illustrates so well that little, sometimes indistinguishable, thing deep down inside where we all think and feel and hurt, that element that all of us learn to wield early in life when we want our first goldfish, or want to meet that kid across the playground. But when Dad drives past the pet store and the kid leaves the playground too soon, all of us utilize this great life tool of our souls a little bit further: hope.

    To deny conflict and peril in our story-telling, we deny children the opportunity to exercise their own hope for a better future, hope for a way through a very difficult time they are walking through alone or with their family. Hope grows in adversity. Cheers, Laura, to your inspiration.

  • All to the good Laura re ‘telling the truth’, no question.
    But the way an author will know if they have the story / message / truth balance right is whether a child will ask for a book to be read again, and again, and again. Do they fall in love with it? Or have they been ‘made to eat Broccoli’?
    Jonathan

    • I agree Jonathan, and I think it comes down to whether the author has a message he/she wants to deliver (which means the book is really about the author, and often results in broccoli), or whether the character lives through an experience, learns and grows, and therefore models to the child how to deal with certain situations. If the author can remain in the background, it allows the readers to draw their own conclusions from the book and make the story relevant to their own lives.

  • The title ‘truth’ creates life of reality, it proffers survival skills strategies for children and removes them from life of fantasy which they have always believed in. i am very optimistic that it will make great impact on the way children think and reason.

  • As a high school English teacher, I often have the opportunity to see beyond the mask that many of my students wear. Through their words, they construct the world they live in, or want to live in, or don’t want to live in. I try to let them have free range with their writing assignments and avoid the typical prescribed marking schemes.which often stifle their creativity. Bottom line is that we need to listen to what’s Just below the surface or deeper, without judgement, but rather, encouragement to explore their world, themselves and potentially change it.

  • What a great article, Laura. I needed to hear that because so many people do shield their children too much. I was shielded as a child and into my teens which, I believe, created a good deal of naivety for me. Plus I rarely grew up with books and was never read to. I learned that if you are kept away from the truth you are more fearful of the world outside your own bubble. I was. And because of that, I’ve made sure my son hears and experiences what he needs to, within sensible parameters. He’s growing up with a great deal of common sense and wisdom for an individual of fifteen. He reads fictional books everyday and they’ve helped him get past obstacles he’s encountered in his life. So yes, books and their stories are a necessary aid for growing children.
    I’m passionate about writing picture books so your words will help my writing immensely because I have known mothers from the time my son was little getting books for their children that hide the world from them. You can’t escape conflict. It surrounds us all and is a necessary part of life. I want to write picture books that hand lessons to children and open their eyes. I feel I can do that now, thanks to you. You’ve wiped away any self doubt I had about my writing ideas. Currently I’m working through Picture Book Blueprint in order to create those stories. And I’m loving it 🙂

    • Thank you Catie! I was also shielded from a certain amount of the world growing up, and had to learn it on my own once I moved out of the house. I would have much rather learned some lessons through my books in order to make some better decisions as a young adult. While we all go through that to a certain extent, and have to learn through our own life experience, it would have been helpful to have been able to think through some bigger issues via books before I lived them.

      • I don’t think as an author we should be expressing our views to educate readers that we don’t even know. Politics has a funny way of creeping into our views as we write. What gives us the authority to try and teach the reader what and how to think in different events. Readers should be getting different views on life from real people, not a writer punching keys on a keyboard. This article led in with a political view which may not be shared by all who read it. It most certainly does not need to be infiltrated into story lines for readers. Books are one of the few places readers can go to escape the problems of the world. Let’s no take that away from them. I may be the only one reading this article that feels this way but both sides of the lead into your article were not given to your readers. We write to to take readers into worlds that they can live in even if it is for just a short time. Reality does not have to exist in our books unless we are writing non-fiction. I think that there is enough reality on TV, radio, newspapers and social media. Please leave the reality of the worlds problem out of books.

        • I appreciate your comments Judie. I believe that all authors, no matter what kind of story they write, bring a point of view to the book. How could they not? If they’re writing books where the characters are safe and happy, and there is no conflict in their lives, that’s a point of view the author wants to impart to kids. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Kids need those books too. But my point is that if, as an author, you want to show your characters facing a challenge and overcoming it, you shouldn’t be afraid to do that. If a young child comes from a home where his parents argue a lot, and he never sees that represented in his books, he may feel he’s the only person in the world living in this situation, and that can be a very lonely feeling. But if he sees a character deal with this situation and actually get through it, and learning that he is loved even in the tough times, that can be very comforting and empowering. I agree that “teaching” in books often results in heavy-handed stories, and it’s always important for the author to take herself out of the story and allow her characters to be authentic to themselves and their particular situations, but I also know that if you write a book with no conflict at all, it won’t be interesting to kids. “Conflict” and “reality” come in all shapes and sizes, and are age-specific. It could be finding a lost puppy in a picture book, or working through a best friend’s attempted suicide in a young adult novel. But if there is no change for the characters, if they have no obstacles to overcome, the book won’t resonate on an emotional level with readers, and they’ll forget the story as soon as they’ve finished it. Of course, when you’re writing for toddlers, you can skip the conflict, but a simple ABC book isn’t going to add to what’s already out there. A book about a two-year-old who doesn’t want to take a bath (or loses her favorite toy, as in Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny), will.

  • Thank you for this subject and this forum for dialogue about it. As writers bring tougher content to their manuscripts, my hope is that editors and publishers become more willing to endure the risks of bringing uncomfortable subjects to the marketplace. We’re all in serious evolution now, and whether adults are ready to embrace this or not, kids are.

  • There is one other aspect to ‘telling the truth.’ Whose truth? How do you know what is true and what isn’t?
    Yes, we need to tell children as much of the truth as they can handle at their ages. We also need to teach them how to think and discern and recognize when what is touted as truth isn’t. And sometimes the source believes their ‘truth’, even though it is false.

    • I understand what you’re saying Karen, and I think there’s a fine line between preaching to the reader (which often involves the author voicing their “truth” in a heavy-handed way), and simply presenting the truth of the book’s character and letting children decide if they believe it, and if it resonates with them. If a character is of the age of the reader, and that character is experiencing something in his/her life that’s authentic to their age, then it’s most likely appropriate for the readers. In my opinion, the problem comes when an author decides that an 8-year-old shouldn’t be experiencing this truth, and so leaves it out of the book, even though 8-year-olds everywhere may be living it.

    • Yes, Karen. You make an excellent point. We live in a world that has deified relativism, the philosophy that truth is determined by each of us. This is a very dangerous way of thinking that ultimately leads to anarchy and lawlessness. We are witnessing this in our culture today.

      Truth is not relative. Truth is changeless and does not differ from one person to another. Just because I may say that two plus two equals five does not make it true. Why not? Because there is a mathematical law (an absolute truth) that states that two and two will always equal four.

      I believe it is our duty and responsibility as writers who influence children to write truth. But first we must know truth. To answer your critically important question, “How do you know what is true and what isn’t?”, I would reply with the words of Jesus in the Bible: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14: 6). Jesus is the Source of Truth and the Bible is the written expression of Truth. If you are sincerely looking for truth, you will find it in that best-selling book of all time.

  • Well said, as always, Laura. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I believe we have both the right and the responsibility to mirror real life in some of our writing. Thank you for the reminder.

  • Well said. As a clinical social worker and middle grade writer, I am committed to writing stories in which children can recognize their own inner turmoil, terrors, and conflicts – as well as their curiosity, joy, and success. Much of this, for middle graders, is internal…and therefore deemed “quiet” (and therefore non-competitive in the market?)…But the result is that the books we write that tell a truth that we would have loved to see in stories as children, are once again prohibited from appearing for yet another generation. These books should not be rare. Our children’s lives are complex, and books can help and heal.

  • Thank you for your thought-provoking article, Laura. Before we can write truthfully, we must know what truth is. The question for us to ask, then, is, “What is Truth?”

    Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14: 6). Jesus also said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8: 32). So, the primary responsibility for us who seek to write truthfully for children is to discover truth. If we sincerely seek truth, we will find it.

    Truth is changeless. It is solid and unshakeable. It is the only foundation on which to build our writing and our lives.

    Many Blessings,

    Dr. MaryAnn Diorio

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