Tuesday, June 28, 2005

I read an article today that questioned the purpose of children's novels on depressing subjects & made the common suggestion that such books are more popular with teachers or librarians than with kids. I realized that even though I adore humor and nearly always choose comedy movies over other types, some of the children's books that meant the most to me as a child, the ones that stayed with me over the years, were the ones on depressing or difficult subjects. There was Constance C. Greene's Beat the Turtle Drum, about a girl whose younger sister dies in an accident the same week she finally gets a horse for a week; Zibby Oneal's The Language of Goldfish, about a girl facing a mental breakdown as she enters her teens; my favorite novel from age 13 on, Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light, which deals with death, grief, and depression in a hopeful way; and Britt Singer's edgy YA The Petting Zoo, about a young woman trying to stop her boyfriend from killing himself. I still own all four of those today, even though I have very few other books from my childhood. Something about them resonated with me, not in a weird voyeuristic way, but in trying to make sense of the world. That makes me feel better about my own forays into darker material, although of course I love my fun stuff, too!

This article also suggested that kids need to know they don't have to solve their problems alone, unlike book characters who find themselves isolated with a great deal of trouble. While I think that's a valid point, & editors do insist that protagonists solve their own problems rather than being rescued by some deus ex machina solution, the characters in many children's books solve their problems with the help of others, whether it's a team of kid detectives working together, or a depressed character reaching out for help in the end instead of retreating further into herself or himself. Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light is helped by relationships with both people and dolphins! I think one way a character may solve his or her own problem is by choosing to request or accept help. My characters tend to get advice and insight from people around them, whether they solicit it or not (and I do worry editors will balk at this, if it happens too much!), but what each character must do alone, and what we all must do alone, is come to a point of decision. In my film classes, we were taught that the narrative arc of a traditional story is driven by the decisions the characters make. Others can advise us or give us a hand, but only we can decide which advice or path to take, and the choices we make can determine whether or not we live happily ever after! Sure, I think it's important for kids to know, for instance, that they don't have to suffer in silence when picked on by bullies, but many kids do deal with a lot alone, and I don't think literature would do them favors by ignoring problems, or assuming that everyone has the same resources. I also think that those of us who have hope, and believe that we do not have to suffer alone, need to try even harder to get our hopeful messages out there for those kids who are struggling with existential worries and drawn to books that deal with tough issues.

All that said, I agree it's often preposterous how many tragedies kids in books (and animal kids in Disney movies!) are sometimes confronted with, and how many ways writers and filmmakers concoct to get kids into situations where they're on their own. The Lemony Snicket books poke ironic fun at all that, and Louis Sachar also swipes at the depressing book phenomenon in one of his hilarious Wayside School books. I'd also recommend that folks sick of depressing stories read Gordan Korman's funny midgrade novel No More Dead Dogs! The protagonist of that one is sick of them, too.

1 comment:

Kim said...

I enjoyed this post. Have you ever noticed how many Disney movies start with the parents (or one parent)dying? My kids hate this as much as I do.