I’ve written and spoken before about why I write books on difficult topics – and why kids need these books – and I know I will write and speak about this topic again, and again. But I came across this article by Matt de la Peña, an American author, that just beautifully explains why we need what he terms ‘darkness in kid’s books.
Read the article. It’s short and it is beautifully written. But, if you want the precis, Matt talks about asking himself (and imagining asking Kate Dicamillo) : “How honest should we be with our readers? Is the job of the writer for the very young to tell the truth or preserve innocence?”
He asked this in the wake of gun violence, natural disaster and political tensions in the ‘real’ world. Matt’s question really resonated with me because it’s the kind of thing I often ask myself: Can I go there? Should I go there? Why?
But Matt goes on to talk about pressure he and his illustrator had received to change a scene in their forthcoming picture book, Love. The illustration showed a child hiding under a piano while his parents argue. The feedback was that “the moment was a little too heavy for children. And it might make parents uncomfortable.”
I shared this article on my personal Facebook wall, and it got lots of responses, but one response, from someone who is not an author or illustrator, but a very fine parent, summed up WHY we need scenes like these in books. She said: “imagine being the kid hiding under the piano…reading nothing but happy stories and wondering why their own life story isn’t the same…they need to know that they aren’t alone with their story…that it isn’t just them…” Yup. Brilliant answer.
We need darkness in kids’ books because kids have darkness in their own lives. They need to know they are not alone.
We need darkness in kids’ books because the world has many dark moments, which children are exposed to daily through media and through experience
We need darkness in kids’ books so that those children who are fortunate enough not to have experiences such as we write about can experience them vicariously and develop empathy
We need darkness in kids’ books so that we can also offer hope – ways out of the darkness, ways to find dots of light in the midst of darkness and ways to fight the darkness
We need darkness in kids’ books to encourage our new generations to want to make the world a better place.
Not all my books have this darkness. But with books about death, childhood illness, disability war, family trauma and more, I do often get asked why I do it, and get looks of horror when I tell a parent/teacher/librarian what the book they’ve picked up book is about. Sometimes, when I cry over a scene I’m writing, I wonder myself why I’m doing it. Sometimes I want to take my character and hug them or just make their life one filled with sparkly rainbow unicorns.
And then I hear from a reader about the difference one of my books has made to them, and I know.
We need darkness in kids’ books so we can have light.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.