SAD, DARK AND TWISTY MIDDLE GRADE – TWO AUTHORS’ PERSPECTIVES by Tracy Holczer and Nikki Loftin
When I was a kid, I used to dress up in my mother’s nightgowns, layers and layers of lace and silky chiffon, draped across my shoulders, sometimes veiling my face, but always trailing behind me like the train of a wedding gown. I would play “Peter and the Wolf” and “Arabian Nights” on the record player, slinking around the carpeted living room and throwing myself on the floor in fits of agony as only the best of actresses can do. It is no wonder that eventually my family took to calling me Sarah Bernhardt. I was that weird kid. The one who wanted to learn how to count in Roman numerals, or tread water so I would never die at sea. I was the kid who wore a lacey dress on picture day when everyone else wore jeans. It’s no wonder that I eventually came to love books with all my heart. Because they were filled with people just like me.
But not light fare. No. I was addicted to stories like Anderson’s “The Little Matchgirl,” and his original telling of “The Little Mermaid.” Books like Little Women and Nantucket Summer, which was about a girl who is stuck on Nantucket Island helping a woman take care of her toddler while the woman slowly goes insane. Then I moved on to Stephen King, V.C. Andrews and Hemingway. The more tragic, the better.
I loved these stories, most likely, because there was darkness in my childhood. Not quite Dickensian in nature, but close enough. The stories I read mirrored my life in certain ways by telling me that things will be hard, that people don’t always take care of you, and that there is evil, pure and simple, in this world. But they also told me that I would be okay in spite of all that. And most important, gave me a sense that I wasn’t alone. Those books painted pictures of what it looked like to survive, that heroes didn’t necessarily wear capes and that keeping things bottled up was a choice, not a necessity.
But that isn’t the only great thing books did for a kid like me. I remember sitting on my Nonni’s scratchy wool couch with “The Little Matchgirl” spread open before me, sobbing over the end for about the one hundredth time, my mother imploring, “Why do you do this to yourself.” Well, at the time, I didn’t know. I just knew I felt better afterwards. But now I understand. I know that feelings are complicated and don’t often take a straight line. I didn’t see my dad for a stretch, and I never cried or wanted to talk about it. But when I’d read “The Little Match Girl,” I’d sob – for the little girl in the book, but also because I missed my dad. Catharsis is healing and a book can get you there.
And those kids who don’t have anything like a Dickensian childhood? Why do they need sad books, too? Because it’s a safe glimpse into the bigger world and shows them kids who have different experiences from their own. They can consider that sometimes it’s the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl. And that they may not have experienced much grit just yet, but its coming. It always does. And they’ll be okay, too.
I often wonder what would have happened if I didn’t have the outlet of tragic books when I was young. If adults had only handed me one side of the story. I’m so glad I’ll never have to know.
By Tracy Holczer
The Secret Hum of a Daisy
What kind of an author writes sad books for kids?
No, really. What is it with those authors anyway? Do they like to think of their young, defenseless, innocent readers sobbing their hearts out, clutching tiny handkerchiefs to splotchy red faces, mourning whatever choices led them to pick up that particular Sad Book? Are those authors twisted somehow?
Would it shock you if I, one of those Authors of Sad Books, admitted… yes?
I am twisted, and all of my novels probably are going to be as well. That possibility became apparent with my debut novel, a lovely Hansel and Gretel-inspired romp through a school filled with plump students and hungry, cannibalistic teachers. Then, with Nightingale’s Nest, my second middle grade novel, I staked claim to Deep Tragedy Territory when I tortured and tormented my main character, Little John, to the point where many adult readers delicately pronounced it “too sad for kids.”
And then I wrote Wish Girl, which one of my dearest friends recently reviewed as “an ugly cry book.” She meant it kindly.And I don’t regret any of it. I hope my readers do cry. Or sob, or scream, or feel queasy. You see, my greatest fear as a writer – or one of them, as writers have more than their fair share of fears to pick from – is not that my readers will feel too much. It is that I might write a book that leaves the reader unaffected. A forgettable book. That I might spend a significant portion of my life devoted to a book that makes no difference, that doesn’t stick.
I’m too old for that. And I value my young readers far too highly. Just as adults do, children deserve their writers to go to the deepest well of pain, sorrow, anger, or, yes – joy – to bring back the very best, most important, most alive story they can tell. And they deserve to have us do it again and again, and to take them seriously as readers, knowing they can handle the truth.