Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Truth in fiction: Helpful or Hurtful to young readers?

After receiving an e-mail from a school librarian objecting to what she called "many problems" that make  Kyleah's Tree "inappropriate" for her students, I asked her to be more specific.

 She said, "Kyleahs tree has death, runaways, orphans,foster families, physical abuse, sexual abuse, alluding to BIA police as corrupt with drugs, adults using children to benefit their careers. Too many problems for the kids I work with."

Of course it isn't written for the younger elementary students; grades K-3, but for children old enough to read and enjoy it, I think they should be given the opportunity. The sexual abuse in this story was not the main theme, and was not explicit. I felt it carried an important message for kids to hear, but I  believe I handled it delicately. The implied lesson for young readers is that grown ups are not always right. I want children to know that if anyone tries to touch them inappropriately, or even talks about it, they, (the adults) are wrong. I want the kids to know that it is never their fault, and that it is okay to scream for help and to tell on the adult. I put this scene in my story, for, like it or not, it happens. 

Below is the reply I sent to the librarian. 

Thanks for informing me of the issues in Kyleah's Tree that you find objectionable. I'm sure you are not the only adult who feels that way. The book was written mainly for teens and preteens, but after giving it much thought, I still don't see where it is inappropriate for children as young as nine.  I don't think I'll make any major changes, for doing so would betray my convictions about "True Fiction," and my purpose for writing. Let me explain:  

Literature, in order to help children understand themselves and their peers must reflect life, not deny its pervasive problems and challenges. I always write about issues that today's real kids face in their everyday life. If particular readers don't experience the problem portrayed, they surely know someone—perhaps sitting next to them in school, riding their bus or living in their neighborhoods—who does.  

Do loved ones in a child's life die? Unfortunately, yes. Do kids run away? A study in 1999 revealed somewhere near 1.7 million child runaways, qualifying that number as conservative, as many runaways are not reported. A lot more think about it, dream and plan to but never act on the idea. Will reading about it, seeing the danger involved, and noting Kyleah's wish to have stayed home, satisfy the dream or urge to leave home, so that they will not feel the need to experience it for themselves? That is my hope. 

 Do orphans as well as kids taken from abusive homes end up in foster homes. Of course. Are all foster homes perfect? Some foster parents are well intentioned but over burdened and make mistakes as all human beings do. Others are far from ideal. Do children suffer physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the hands of adults? Do adults exploit children for their own pleasure or gain? Absolutely. Children suffer at the hands of adults every single day. And most of them keep it their secret, blaming themselves, feeling shame and helplessness, and think that they are alone in their situation. I dare say that if there are none of these children in your school, you live in a rare idyllic environment. 

Without finding someone to talk to or read about, abused and exploited children will continue to keep silent, cloaked in shame, protecting their perpetrators. Many child therapists will tell you that relating to a fictitious character can help them in many ways. You may find references to such benefits on the web. Here is an example:

"Through books, children learn to cope more constructively with complex emotions like fear and jealousy or stressful experiences like starting school or moving to a new neighborhood."

"By reading about other children and their lives, they take comfort in knowing they are not alone." 

"Books can form a vital springboard for parent-child discussion."

Children who have read my books report that they have helped them in many ways, because the characters are, as they say, "just like me," and  "have the same problems I do." A girl who read Danny's Dragon wrote, "I knew Danny's feelings very well. He acted exactly like I did when I lost my father." A renowned reviewer said that Danny's Dragon should be in every school and library. It isn't of course. Too many teachers and librarians feel they must protect their students from reading about war and death even though thousands of children, like Danny, have lost a parent in war. 

My hope in writing my books is that young readers can realize that their feelings about the situation they are in and the problems they have are valid and to help them release dangerously pent-up emotion without shame; to be able to discuss their problems by being able to relate them to a fictional character; to see that drugs are dangerous and lead only to trouble, to see that sexual exploitation is wrong and not their fault; that it is okay to shun and report the perpetrator, and to protect themselves. In Kyleah's Tree especially, I sought to dispell the "beauty myth," that negatively impacts so many of today's children, even in elementary school; the belief that they must be "beautiful" in order to be loved and accepted. 

Many authors, in the interest of child victims, write beautiful, poignant, and therapeutic fictional accounts of problems that real kids must face. But too often those books are kept from the hands of children by well-meaning adults who believe it will hurt kids to read about the very issues that plague them. "An Inmate's Daughter," a book my company published, is a prime example. 2.5 million children live with the separation, stigma, loneliness, confusion, guilt, shame, and pain of having one or both parents in prison or jail. It is a book that should be in every classroom, and library. Is it?  No, only a small percentage of those who could best benefit from reading this book by compassionate and knowledgeable authors and veteran educator, Jan Walker, have had access to it. I fear that far too many of the books that deal with real life issues are being kept from the eyes and minds of children who need them by well-meaning adults who want to protect them from unpleasant themes, not realizing the kids and their peers are living those themes, and that reading about them could be a great comfort.

By the way, I am looking again at the episode involving the BIA. Your take on it is far from what I intended. I see the Indian policeman as a concerned and caring man with the intention of protecting his jurisdiction from drugs. I still don't see where you found the implication that he was "corrupt with drugs," but I will keep looking for it and make sure that the policeman's intentions are clearly honorable in future editions. 

Today's children are tomorrows adults. They hold the future of the world in their hands. If they are denied a view of the problems that confront their fellow human beings and do not develop a compassion for the downtrodden, the corruption and abuse that goes on today will only continue. 

Thanks for giving me the chance to see my work from your point of view. It has given me pause; a time to reflect on what I am doing and decide whether I want to change my course. I am grateful for criticism, which lends me principles to keep in mind in my future writing. Hearing your viewpoint, although, on the whole, I don't concur with it, will serve to sharpen my sensitivity as I continue to write true-to-life stories. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Happy Meme

Mary Cunningham,, tagged me for a meme. It's simple. I only have to list six things that make me happy. Well, maybe not so simple when there are so many to choose from. Hmmm. Let me think. 

1. Watching my next to youngest grandson have fun in the snow. 

2. The view of hills, wildlife, and changing sky through my office window. 

3. Listening to the laughter of my baby grandson. 

4. Good books. 

5. A devoted husband. 

6. My writer's  group. 

The list above is random, not necessarily prioritized as I chose from so much that makes me happy, including all of my grandchildren, sons, and daughters, their families, my friends, my siblings, heros like Greg Mortenson and President Obama, and the list goes on and on. 

Thanks, Mary, for the chance to think of 6 happy things, for it opens the mind to boundless gratitude. 

Now, I'm supposed to tag someone else to list 6 things that make you happy. 

Janet Grace Riehl, you're it. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Editing for brevity

One of the most important steps in editing anything I've written, is to cut—lots of it. As William Zinsser claims, about 50% of what we write can be eliminated without losing meaning. 

A good example is my last blog post. I usually edit each one several times before posting. This time, I was forced to publish it quickly before my computer shut down. I couldn't get it to save and I didn't want to lose it all. Normally I would have gotten back to it immediately and revised it, but I was late for an appointment that kept me away all day. Eventually, after several cuts, I reduced it by at least half. If you read an early version, I invite you to scroll down to see the latest, more spare one. 

In following the advice I give in my writing classes, I write without concern for the editing steps I know will come later. I take Ann Lamott's advice and let the first draft be the child's draft, writing without censor whatever comes to mind. This allows free thinking and the chance to get the thoughts down before they are lost. When the first draft is written, I take very seriously Zinsser's advise, and incorporating his "four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity." 

Too often we writers will add an adverb that carries the same meaning as the word it modifies. The same is true of adjectives. And far too often I'm guilty of rambling, as I seek the exact idea I wish to convey. As David Belasco said, "If you can't write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don't have a clear idea." 

Thomas Jefferson declared that "The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." 

My advice to writers is this: Write freely, using as many words as come to mind to state what you are thinking and feeling. But before publishing them, cut every unnecessary word. When rewriting, remember the words of Hosea Ballou, "Brevity and conciseness are the parents of correction." 

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Everything you ever dreamed or imagined

Each morning, I break the code of a cryptogram that is a quote from some profound or famous person. This morning's fits very well into both the recorded interview I had last night with Reader Views'  Irene Watson and Loving Healing Press owner, Victor Volkman on Author's Access and my workshop on writing "True Fiction." The quote is by Orison Swett Marden, who was a prolific American writer who died in 1924. He had a degree in Medicine but was best known for his books on success and motivation. Today's quote says,
There are powers inside of you which, if you could discover and use, would make of you everything you ever dreamed or imagined you could become. 
In one of the lessons in my writing workshop I talk about the "Demons of Doubt" and other mental blocks that keep us from writing freely, speaking freely, and living freely. I have often wondered just how far my dreams and imagination would have taken me, if I had always believed in them and in my own inner "powers." George Eliot told us, "it is never too late to be what you might have been."  So, I strive to overcome the doubts that occasionally raise their ugly head to temporarily block my thoughts. 

I suffered a momentary mental block twice during my interview and thought of more I would like to have said in answer to the questions after it was over. 

When Irene asked me about the differences between writing for adults and children, I told her the process is the same. For me it certainly is. I indicated that the point of view dictates whether or not it is for an adult or a child. That seems to imply that if you have a child protagonist, the book is always for children. That is obviously not true. Although most children's books have children as the main character, there are many adult books written from the point of view of a child protagonist. We certainly wouldn't call Fire Starter, by Stephen King a children's book, just because it has a child as the main character. I just read a very gripping adult thriller that was written entirely from a ten-year-old girl's viewpoint and in her voice. The book is titled Whistling in the Dark, by Leslie Kagen. 

Years ago, I started a book that I intended for children because I wanted to address the plight of homeless children. Although it began from the point of view a child, I quickly realized that this would be a book for adults. How do I determine that? Not just by the viewpoint, but by the issues involved and the age of the audience who will relate to it. When I'm unsure, I ask myself, would I want my granddaughters to read this? Would it be more meaningful to adults? My book on homelessness is not appropriate for my seven and ten-year-old granddaughters, but it is one that adults today will relate to, as unemployment is at a record low. Hmm. I must finish that book. 

When Victor asked me about where the idea of the trilogy of the twins, of which Kyleah's Tree is the first book, I couldn't remember. Twins? Separated at age four? Living lives apart, longing for the bond they had in those early days? I couldn't remember what had led me to that track, other than knowing how one of my granddaughter's enjoys stories about orphans. After ending the interview, I remembered that before the idea of orphans, came two characters from my own early childhood—a girl and a tree. It began with the character, Kyleah, who is largely based on me at that age, and the tree, (a cottonwood in real life which became a burr oak when I decided to set the story in Kansas.) The tree is an important character in the story (and my memory), and it was a big part of my inspiration in writing it. I write about an issue that real children face and develop a character who has a big problem with that issue. Kyleah's problem was a lack of self-esteem and a fixation with physical beauty, believing that only those with outward beauty can be loved. The tree in the back yard became her friend, her refuge, and the only "being" she felt safe in confiding her wish to be beautiful—and wanted. In writing Kyleah's story, I set out to discover why I felt so ugly and unloved, and why physical beauty was such a big deal. As the story progresses, and Kyleah climbs the tree—her refuge—each morning and wishes on the rising sun, a missing twin brother comes into being, as do the other characters and events of the book. 

I believe the book is important for today's children because  the "Beauty Myth" continues to be propagated as kids are bombarded with commercials, movies, TV shows, toys and games. I've seen many young girls lose a large measure of self-confidence when they begin school and are led to believe that to be popular, they must be both thin and pretty.  I hope that as kids read through all the adventure and excitement of two kids on the road, running away from a foster home, they will also become more accepting of themselves as they are. 

As I indicated in my interview, the background and development of Kyleah's character, and the issues that I gave her led to the creation of other characters and the plot of the story. This is how character driven plots are created. Presented with life-like problems, the characters show the author what they would really do.

Perhaps that is some of the "inner power" an imaginative author discovers as she writes from her heart.