TUESDAY WRITING TIP – WRITING ABOUT ISSUES IN CHILDREN’S FICTION

Today I’m pleased to welcome Children’s author, Marianne Musgrove to DeeScribe Writing.

Marianne is a former social worker who writes fantastic books for children about real life issues. Real issues can be difficult to incorporate in children’s books – they can’t be preachy, but they can’t be taken too lightly either.

Marianne seems to have found just the right balance and today, she has generously agreed to share some of her tips with us.

DON’T SCARE THE KIDS: WRITING ABOUT ISSUES IN CHILDREN’S FICTION

By Marianne Musgrove.

Bullying, abuse, racism, disability, depression, war, divorce, death. These are the kinds of issues cropping up in modern children’s writing (and that’s just the picture books!).

As a former social worker, my own books, aimed at six to twelve year olds, cover such topics as anxiety, dementia and the nature of truth. The question for me is not so much should we be writing about such subjects as how?

The Preachiness Test

Kids are canny. They’ll tune out before you can say, ‘And the moral to the story is …’ so ask yourself this question: why is this scene/chapter/character here? If your answer is to teach the reader something, there’s a possibility you’re being preachy.

Each scene needs to either move the story forward or reveal something about a character. Do yours?

My latest book, Lucy the Lie Detector, is about a seven year old girl trying to figure out the nature of truth and lies. What do you do when someone gets a horrible haircut and asks you what you think? And what about those times Dad buys you an ice-cream then says, ‘Don’t tell your mother.’?

Writing a book about lying without metaphorically shaking a finger at the reader was a challenge. I tried to show the complexities of lying (white lies versus lying for gain versus pretending), but I didn’t want to cop out and avoid the moral issues either. Telling the truth is complicated and lying breaks trust.

The most important thing, I decided, was to tell a rollicking good story first and explore the issues second.

The Age Appropriateness Test

Wondering if your experimental picture book, Judy the Giraffe: Serial Killer, is a goer?

Think of your book’s target audience then imagine how a child that age would feel after reading certain scenes. It’s desirable to engage the reader emotionally but you don’t want to traumatise them.

Treatment is the key so if you still want to write about a particular topic, consider dwelling less on the heavy aspects of the story, eg. Margaret Wild’s Let the Celebrations Begin! is a picture book about the Holocaust that never mentions the concentration camp itself, instead focusing on the women prisoners sewing toys for the children.

The Values Test

Adopt the role of impartial observer. What are the main messages and values contained in your story? Is this really what you want to say?

Some years ago, there was quite an uproar when Margaret Clark wrote a YA novel called Care Factor Zero in which the main character commits suicide, carrying a message, many argued, of hopelessness. In my view, children’s books should always be infused with hope.

Yes, there can be great sadness in life, but even in the worst of situations, there is always hope (and that’s one of my values). The point here is that your book may contain unintended messages so look closely.

Suggested reading:

The Naming of Tishkin Silk by Glenda Millard (death of a baby sibling/post natal depression)

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (refugees)

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox (dementia)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Asberger’s Syndrome)

Mahalia by Joanne Horniman (teenage single dad)

— Marianne Musgrove Author of

  1. The Worry Tree
  2. Don’t Breathe a Word
  3. Lucy the Good
  4. Lucy the Lie Detector

(All with Random House Australia.)

Thanks for dropping in, Marianne, and for your fantastic tips.

You can find out more about Marianne and her work at www.mariannemusgrove.com.au/

Next week on our Tuesday Writing Tips segment we’re going to be looking at How Writing Competitions Hone Your Writing Skills.