I’ve received more responses on the topic I wrote about last week—the practice of excluding adults from stories for young people—than any other I’ve taken on, so I’m going to stay with the topic for a couple of weeks.
One young mother, Meghan Gordon, responded this way:
Adam and I have been thinking about this issue recently. Several weeks ago, our 7 year old son decided to have an adventure. He and a friend packed their backpacks with the essentials (Fig Newtons and a baseball bat) and left our back yard without telling me. The boys walked along the train tracks behind our house for over a mile and found themselves a very comfortable spot under a bridge. They had their Fig Newton dinner and talked about how lucky they were to find a couch that was outside. Fast forward through three hours of my own personal hell, and Ian was delivered home safely by the police. He was not doing anything intentionally hurtful or naughty. Deep down he knew how “against the rules” this was, but he was having too much fun on his adventure to acknowledge it.
Anyway, Adam and I discussed many aspects of Ian’s little walk-about. One of the things we realized was that he reads story after story about children going on an adventure all on their own. It just isn’t cool for the children in his books to wait for their mom to help them cross the street or feed them healthy food. Generally, children are on their own for their adventures and they come up with their own creative solutions. For an adventurous and free-spirited boy like Ian, these are thrilling stories that he loves. For us, his parents, they were fuel to the adventurous fire that could have ended in tragedy. Of course, he could have ran away without having read any books. But, books inspire kids- in good ways and potential bad ways. Adam and I now know that discussions need to be had around the lack of adults in his books: what are good things the children are doing and what are things Ian should never do.
I think it is a parent’s responsibility to have their child read books and to discuss aspects of the books with them. But, I am glad you put an adult voice in your books. I appreciate it when an author thinks about the children who will read their book and may take it as an instruction manual.
What Meghan has described is the nightmare of every author who writes for children, having an adventure story—or in this case a long-time diet of adventure stories—turn into an instruction manual for real trouble. And there is no way to get around the fact that, unless we go back to the somberly warning tone of stories written for children in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this kind of imitation will happen from time to time.
Does that mean we must only show the children in our stories being very good little boys and girls or show them being well punished—a little hell fire, anyone?—when they aren’t? There are some who would say so, though that certainly isn’t Meghan’s point. It is a well-established truth—at least it’s been a long-taken-for-granted assumption—that you have to put your young characters in charge of their destinies to make their stories interesting. And it’s difficult to do that without getting those young characters out from under adult supervision. But can we empower young characters without orphaning them?
And can an adult voice telling a story be a comforting frame for the reader, or is it only an intrusion?
More next week.