Taking Sides

Killing Miss KittyIn 1976 when I published my first middle-grade novel, the lines were clearly drawn. If you wrote for young people, you had to be on their side, because there were clearly sides. Adults were on one. Kids were on the other. And though it’s trite to say it, the twain did very little meeting.

Adults, it was assumed, were to be banished from juvenile literature, or if they were there, they were to appear only in the shadowy background or to take their proper role in the story as the villains, the ones who had already destroyed the world, the ones who were incapable of understanding the clear-eyed truths so obvious to the young. I know of a group of children’s writers who met regularly in a critique group. Though mothers themselves, they took on the name “Kill the Mothers.”  It was an age of killing the mothers, of assuming we would all be better served by eliminating adults from our stories if not from the world entirely.

But I’m beginning to wonder. I have been writing and publishing in this field for nearly forty years, and I’m not sure whether the rules are changing or if my own foundation is shifting. What I am sure of is that I have grown weary of a story world without adults. In fact, increasingly, I find such a world narrow, stultifying, lacking in perspective, and–the worst possible criticism if we’re talking about stories–downright boring.

Now, granted, I’m 73 years old, so that statement may say much more about me than it does about contemporary juvenile literature. Maybe kids wouldn’t agree with me at all. That’s very likely. Maybe I’ve simply grown too old for the career that has sustained me for nearly forty years. That’s a possibility, too. I know writers younger than I am whose careers have quietly closed down because, while they still have all the strengths that built their careers, the market has moved on and left them behind.

But maybe, just maybe, there is a place in publishing for an old lady who doesn’t want to play by the rules any more. When I sit down to write these days, I need that adult voice enriching my stories, or at least I need adults–their problems, their failings, their wisdom–to be present in my story world.

Thus the voice of an adult narrator in Little Dog, Lost. Thus, too, the lonely old man, Charles Larue. Thus Mark’s mother who isn’t just a meanie who says her son can’t have a dog but who has a history of her own, painful and vulnerable, out of which her refusal comes.

Very Little PrincessThus the voice of an adult narrator in The Very Little Princess  and The Very Little Princess:  Rose’s Story and in Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins. For myself as a writer, I have come to need the wisdom and comfort of that mature perspective to make my stories work, and I am convinced that young readers can take comfort from that storyteller’s voice.

Recently I spoke in an eighth-grade classroom for one of my granddaughters. (I don’t go into schools any longer except for a grandchild.) Afterwards she said, “My friends think you’re a cute old lady, so I guess they liked you.”

I’ll take that, the old as well as the cute. One is a fact, the other a compliment.

How grateful I am to be permitted to speak for the young with this old voice. Grateful, and convinced that I still have something important to say.

One thought on “Taking Sides

  1. MoiraM

    I remember when writing teachers would state, as a rule, that children did not want adults in their books. One of the things I love about Carl Hiaasen’s books for young people is that his child protagonists interact with three-dimensional, fully-realized adults, and Hiaasen has scenes with only adults. In reality, adults play parts in children’s lives, on all levels. Why shouldn’t this be represented in children’s fiction?


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