TODAY ReaderKidZ welcomes Shannon Wiersbitzky in a guest post about #MGGetsReal:
“…there’s always a kid, sitting on a log, dealing with something tough …write for the kid on the log.” Show up. Sit down on the log too and maybe, just maybe, you’ll change the world…” Gary Schmidt, two-time Newbery winner.
As children, we all read books that talked to questions we weren’t willing to voice out loud. ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume, is a classic example. When I was young, I remember witnessing the effects of child abuse. A little girl across the hall from me had been burned by an iron, on purpose. I told my parents and they attempted to intervene, but we didn’t really discuss it. Years later I read, WHAT JAMIE SAW, by Carolyn Coman, a middle grade novel that deals with child abuse. This book made me realize that I’d never really processed what I’d seen. The book helped.
Maybe a child will use a book as a way to start a discussion, or maybe they hold it close, let the words seep in and settle. Books about tough topics won’t solve every problem, they aren’t a ‘how to’ guide and they don’t provide checklists, but they do add value. That was the idea behind #MGGetsReal. An effort to highlight and bring attention to books about a long list of tough topics. You can find the evolving book list HERE.
If you’ve ever been around a group of kids and talked to them, I mean REALLY talked to them, you’ll realize they deal with tough topics. When I’m fortunate enough to visit middle school classrooms, I often conduct a writing workshop. I’ll share how so many ideas for my own stories come from real life. “Little seeds” I like to call them. Those tiny ideas that can sprout and grow and become something bigger.
I’ll lead the kids through a series of prompts. Prompts designed to get them thinking about where they’re own inspiration might come from. I’m always surprised (when will I stop being surprised?!) at the depth of their answers. Kids who talk about the smell of a military hospital as they walked the hall to visit their wounded brother. Or those who talk about a fire destroying their home and everything in it. Kids who mention a parent who drinks too much or an older sibling who is struggling with drugs.
Judging from the snippets of writing they share when I’m there, they fear what we all fear – losing the people they love, the places they know, and suddenly being alone. This is why books about tough and very real topics matter. Not to provide a sense of false hope, or sugary platitudes, but to help them walk through the emotions of any situation. The anger, fear, guilt, whatever it might be. To know that they aren’t the first kid – the only kid – coping with the topic at hand.
So I say to my fellow authors (and remind myself), let’s not be fearful of tackling the tough topics. Yes, we still need fun and hijinks. We also need the stuff that we’re not so proud of. The racism, the violence, the drugs. We need characters dealing with isolation or disabilities, broken homes or homelessness. We need tragedy in all its many forms and flavors. Because kids see, experience and cope with all of it.
This past February I was at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in New York City and was blessed to hear Gary Schmidt speak. He talked about the fact that there’s always a kid, sitting on a log, dealing with something tough. And he encouraged everyone there to “write for the kid on the log.” Show up. Sit down on the log too and maybe, just maybe, you’ll change the world.
One child at a time, books make a difference.
SHANNON WIERSBITZKY is a middle-grade novelist. Her books have been nationally recognized and include THE SUMMER OF HAMMERS AND ANGELS and WHAT FLOWERS REMEMBER. Shannon lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, her two sons, and one very fluffy mutt.