On Writing Books for Real Kids…and Telling the Truth by Kate Messner
There’s a lot going on in the novels I write for kids.
The Seventh Wish is a fairy tale reimagining about wish-granting fish, Irish dancing, science fair projects, and the impact that opioid addiction can have on a family.
Breakout is about a prison break, journalism, relay races, privilege, perspective, and poetry. It also includes secret recipes for Michigan sauce and Peppermint Patty brownies.
My latest novel for kids, Chirp, is a mystery about cricket farming, gymnastics, warrior courses, entrepreneurship, jumping off rocks, and friendship. It’s also a #metoo coming of age story for middle grade readers.
All of these books have earned starred reviews and been praised for their handling of tough subject matter in a way that’s’ thoughtful and respectful of kids. But no matter how many stars adorn the books, I always run into a few grownups who don’t love them because “there’s too much going on.”
I’m okay with this.
First, because I’ve never heard that from a kid. Kids know how complicated their lives are. They understand, in a way that some adults can’t, how life marches on no matter what’s happening, how there are still science projects and soccer games and crushes and fights with friends, even on the day you lose your pet or your grandmother or your faith in someone you love.
But also, because any time you write about something really important, you’re bound to make someone uncomfortable. I’m usually the first uncomfortable person. Writing a book about heroin addiction and its impact on young family members required research that was heartbreaking, and I emerged from my writing room in tears a lot of days while I was working on The Seventh Wish.
Writing Chirp, which was inspired by some of my own childhood memories of touching and other inappropriate attention from adult men, required me not only to replay memories I’d have preferred to forget but to dwell in those remembered places, so that I’d be able to write Mia’s emotional truth in a way that was honest and real.
So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise to me when I come across reviews from uncomfortable adult readers who prickle and sniff at the issues some of my characters face. One online reviewer of Chirp noted how well written she thought the book was, except for “the #metoo thing.” She didn’t think someone should talk about that in a book for kids. She grew up in “a different world than we have today.”
I grew up in that different world, too. It was a world where my classmates and I kept track of whose day it was to sit next to the elementary school music teacher who regularly rested his hand on our thighs and tickled our knees during instrumental music lessons. No one had taught us that we could say “Stop touching my leg like that.” So we took turns sitting next to him each week and moved our folding chairs as far away as we could.
It was a world where, when I was ten years old and thrilled to be taking a short walk on the beach to look for shells and sharks’ teeth, a man exposed himself to me as he walked past me on the sand. And it was a world where I kept that terrifying secret to myself, for fear that it would somehow end up being my fault, and I’d never be allowed to go walking for seashells again.
It was a world where other stuff happened, too, to me and to the kids with whom I grew up. A world where many adults brushed it off when kids complained that someone in a position of power was “creepy” or “weird.” It was a world where adults got to do pretty much whatever they wanted, because kids were supposed to respect them. And they were supposed to shut up about anything that felt wrong.
I’m glad that we’re finding our way out of that world, but it’s not happening fast enough. And I think books that tell honest stories about kids grappling with unwanted attention can help us get there. In the real world – our world –kids are struggling, too. They’re looking for someone to listen. And all the while, they’re showing up for school and doing homework and laughing with their friends and going to band rehearsal. But they’re also looking for an opening to speak up, to feel whole again.
That reviewer – the one who didn’t like “the #metoo thing” – wrote that she didn’t want this kind of discussion “shoved in kids’ faces.” We agree on one thing. I don’t want young people to have to deal with this stuff either. But writers shining a light on it aren’t the problem. The predators are. And they’re all about keeping kids ill-informed. Books about sensitive topics don’t harm kids. They empower them.
That same reviewer went on to write that when people talk openly about #metoo issues on social media and in books, it’s “killing the world as we know it.”
That’s fine with me. By sharing stories, we can set that secret-filled, predator-shielding world on fire.
Let it burn.
And bring on the books.
Kate Messner is passionately curious and writes books that encourage kids to wonder, too. Her titles include award-winning picture books like Over and Under the Snow, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, and How to Read a Story; novels like Capture the Flag, All the Answers, The Seventh Wish, and Breakout; the Fergus and Zeke easy reader series, and the Ranger in Time historical chapter book series. Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family and is trying to summit all forty-six Adirondack High Peaks in between book deadlines. You can find her online at www.katemessner.com and on Twitter as @KateMessner.
Thank you, Kate, for writing your books and empowering kids. I grew up in a world like yours (creepy music teacher & computer teacher & all) and I’d like to see that world burn too.
Hear, hear! Well done, Kate!
I am so completely in agreement with you, and everything inside me resonates with what you’ve shared. Although I write simpler, less complex books, the presence of issues (in the case of my upcoming debut, the epidemic of dieting among 4th and 5th graders) has gotten fearful feedback from some adults—i.e., will telling the truth about young children’s lives make bad things more likely to happen? Luckily, it’s far from all adults.
I grew up in a world where not even words about whose turn it was to sit next to a predator-teacher were spoken, at least by shy kids like I was. Or where no one had an inkling of doubt that larger-than-average children should be mocked and humiliated on Weigh Days, as well as every other day. So I wrote the book I wished I’d had as a child—not about a natural-born feisty girl, but about the journey from insecure to self-acceptance, from silence to voice, from fear to courage.
A long-time fan, I thank you for the books you write, and for speaking out.
I’m beyond glad you’re sharing these stories, Kate. They are so important.
I am not religious, but AMEN, Kate! Kids, especially middle school kids, and kids even younger, are not to young to hear this, and to be validated in what they intuitively know is bad behavior. Many sadly have already experienced inappropriate touching, and even worse things, and this gives it a name, and a place and a way for them to know, and confide in a trusted adult for help.
We need to SHOUT it out, and get rid of shame, and put the blame where it belongs–with inappropriate adults. So, hear, hear & can’t wait to read Chirp!
Wow, this is a powerful post, Kate. Thank you for speaking the truth. And I can’t wait to read this book! (Plus, cricket farming …)
Wow, do I feel this post! Thank you for the message Kate and for putting this story (and your others) out there for all. This is one I would have loved to have access to as an MG reader!
Wonderful post! Did you link it to the comment thread of that review? You should.
Thanks for your bravery to share this post and for your honest writing for kids. You are an inspiration!
Thank you! Let it burn! Amen!!
This is great, and beautifully written. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of you, but after reading this I’ve just been to Amazon and added some of your books to my wish list for my kids.
I really needed to hear these words, Kate (May I call you Kate?) Especially the part about any time you write about something really important, you’re bound to make someone uncomfortable. I struggle with this when writing topical songs like social & enviro justice. What has to be said and highlighted, has to be said and highlighted. I also grew up during “that time of which you speak.” My mom goes nuts when we say we have to pee, lol. It took me a long time to realize that the hard topics in kidlit, any age, are going to be seen or experienced by kids anyway. I realize now it is better to prepare them in a gentle-ish, guided way so that they have at least some kind of reference to draw upon. Stay well, and thanks for the difficult and needed discussion. Peace, Annie