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.