Children’s literature has always portrayed wondrous images of magic, adventure, and fun. Many stories aptly summarize the youthful whimsy of a child’s innocence and naivety as the characters embark on an amazing growing experience. Some writers would even focus their work on the positive aspects of life, often downplaying the harsh realities. These sort of books expose children to an idealistic reality—the comfort of growing up in a stable, trouble-free home with both parents present and the ease of bonding with friends and extended family. At first, children’s books were written to educate later on to serve as entertainment for the younger audience, and recently, these books have evolved. Modern books are written to help the little ones become aware and even heal deeper wounds.
Writers nowadays set their plots in worlds where it’s not all rainbows and butterflies but a place that reflects the real world. Children’s book writers are digging deep into heavy subjects and offer an unflinching look at real life and spark the “big talk.” But how do writers incorporate sensitive topics in children’s literature? Below are key tips in writing books tackling tough topics.
Show and Tell
The first key to a successful story is to make the book more than the tough topics. The book needs to see the characters complexly, allowing them to have a story that molds around the sensitive topic but doesn’t limit itself to that. For example, the story portrays a child with disabilities who went on an adventure and ticked off everything on his bucket list. Yes, he is still differently-abled, but he is also a person who wants to do things other than being that. Fully realized characters can come from all kinds of situations and still function in an exciting plot.
Vulnerability begets more vulnerability. Heavy themes of trauma, death, depression and disabilities can be too heavy for children. The goal of writing about such situations is to seed understanding and ease emotions. That being so, neutralize harsh themes with kindness. Provide a happy ending or, for a more realistic touch, reinforce prompts for conversations or prayer. Providing Bible verses, quotes, or questions is a valuable element parents can use to continue the conversation with their children.
Keep It Real
Sensitive topics mustn’t be crowbarred in; they need to be emotionally true. Many writers who write about tough topics have lived or experienced something adjacent to the situation. And to successfully handle these tough topics, you must be able to feel them in a personal way, not simply feeling pity or even sympathy, but a shared emotional experience. Grandpa Nick’s Bump, a story of grandpa and grandchildren by Lynda Daniele, is a prime example of such. Lynda Daniele relayed the hurt and pain she felt when she lost the most loving person in her life.
Making a story bigger than the tough topic doesn’t ignore the fact that a heavy topic can be tough. The writer must not shy away from writing from that emotional memory of the struggle. Without a bold look at shared pain, this will result in a story so shallow and unreal. If you don’t keep it real, young readers won’t find it emotionally true and won’t gain anything from the story.
One thing all writers of sensitive topics must face is the backlash. Your story will not please everyone. Some parents will be angered at the heavy topic portrayed in the book. The remaining ratio will not like how you handled the subject. And some will have a problem with the subject being explored. These are only half of the possibilities that you may face when writing about heavy stuff. As such, tough topics must be explored with the courage to face the consequences. Backlash can be hard, but if the reason behind writing the book is strong enough, then that strength will get you through. Explore the topics with courage and the right depth, and you’ll be offering something precious to young audiences that are worth all the criticism that may result.