I’ve written four middle grade novels, and three of them are about grief. Once, after a book signing, I overheard an amazing bookseller “pitching” my book to a parent: It’s beautifully written, but just so you know, it has a really sad ending. I get this “but” a lot from well-meaning adult gatekeepers who want to protect kids from anything that might be considered difficult or sad. According to them, kids have it tough enough, and exposing them to books about tough topics will only make it worse.
Here’s the thing: Real life is hard, even for kids. And kids who are dealing with grief, or homelessness, or mental health issues do not have the resources, skills, or power to tackle those things the way adults do. A child can’t seek grief counseling without the help of an adult. They can’t use their vast life experience to decide how to react to adversity, or how not to react. They don’t have the ability to choose their environment or the people in it.
But they do have access to books through schools and public libraries. Books can help equip kids for life and build resiliency, regardless of whether we’re talking about a contemporary realistic novel or an epic fantasy. The best middle grade stories reflect the lives of real kids. The characters in these books are messy, flawed, and ultimately relatable. Yes, the purpose is primarily to entertain, but readers also experience the journey alongside the protagonist, learning with them as they overcome obstacles, win battles, solve mysteries, or move toward a place of hope and understanding.
Real life is scarier than fiction
Middle grade novels can tackle almost any difficult topic, but they have one rule: They always end in a place of hope. The protagonist may not get what they wanted–especially if what they wanted was to rescue their dad from the afterlife like in my novel The Secret Life of Sam–but they always learn something about themselves that leaves them better equipped to face the world. And since readers are going on this journey too, they also leave better equipped to face an uncertain future.
Real life doesn’t work that way. Not every kid learns how to outwit their bully. Not every loss, of a pet or grandparent, ends with a moment of understanding and hope. Sometimes terrible things happen for no reason without any opportunity to grow or build meaning.
Stories can give kids a window into other lives, from humorous graphic novels to serious realistic fiction. Readers can see how a fictional character deals with a bully, or a pair of monstrous underpants, or a death in the family, and they can learn from that example. Maybe the character in the book did it all wrong, and after reading their story, readers can figure out ways to handle it better. Or maybe reading about a fictional kid experiencing grief and anger after the loss of a loved one doesn’t teach them any concrete lesson; it simply makes them feel less alone.
None of my novels are meant to be manuals on how to live a better life. My characters are just dealing with what life throws at them–from invisible skeletons to magical laptops–in the best way they know how. But sometimes just seeing someone else tackle a monster–whether fantastical or real–can help prepare readers for the actual scary things in life. And just because a book deals with grief in some way doesn’t mean that’s the entire story, or that the book was only written for kids who have lived through similar experiences.
First and foremost, authors want to tell good stories. That’s why I write, and my point isn’t that all kids should read so-called difficult books right now or else. My point is that we should stop writing off books that happen to touch on difficult topics because we’re afraid kids can’t handle them. Not only can kids handle these books, but these stories can help kids feel more confident when facing curve balls in real life.
Naming a monster takes away its power
A few years ago, I was searching through a box of old stuff and found a book I’d written in sixth grade. The Wednesday Mourning Club tells the story of five people who each lose someone they love and start a club to process their feelings.
I never lost a family member as a child, but like most kids I had lost beloved pets. Still, I didn’t consciously write that story to turn this terrifying, uncontrollable thing we call death into something manageable and meaningful. But, in retrospect, I can see how writing it helped me do just that.
My first two middle grade novels, both addressing death in different ways, had just released with Scholastic Press when I found The Wednesday Mourning Club. I had no memory of ever writing it, and I was stunned to find that I had been grappling with death and loss all those years ago. For me, the lesson was clear: Storytelling gives readers and creators power over difficult topics, even when we’re not consciously aware of it.
It’s the same reason why people gathered around campfires for centuries telling scary stories. The goal was not to give the listener nightmares, but to take power away from the monsters by putting them into narratives that we control. To show stories of bravery and love, fear and tragic loss, so that listeners can live these epic journeys and come away stronger, or wiser, or more empathetic than when they started.
Let’s try leaving out the “but”
The urge to shield kids from the worst parts of life is understandable, but restricting access to so-called difficult books isn’t the way to do it. Instead, let kids read widely and choose what stories interest them. If a book isn’t right for a young reader, they’ll put it down and try another one. Reading stories can help kids discover who they want to be in the world. They can live a day in another child’s shoes, gaining knowledge and insight from each obstacle the character faces.
Putting the “but” before books that touch on difficult topics is only limiting the insight young readers can gain. This isn’t about requiring certain books, but about allowing kids to choose which stories speak to them by presenting books without “buts” or caveats. I had never experienced a traumatic loss as a sixth grader, but I still needed better ways to understand death. Since I couldn’t find a story written for my age group way back in the Nineties, I wrote one.
Good stories are good stories, and kids deserve the opportunity to grow and broaden their minds within the safe space of a book. Let’s give them that opportunity and try leaving out the “but.”
KIM VENTRELLA is the author of The Secret Life of Sam (HarperCollins), Hello, Future Me, Bone Hollow and Skeleton Tree (Scholastic). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. The Secret Life of Sam was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2020. Bone Hollow was chosen as a Best Book for Kids 2019 by New York Public Library, and Skeleton Tree was nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal in the UK. For the latest updates, follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.
(Featured image by Johnny McClung from Unsplash)