These are snowy days, good days to slow down and turn inward, to take time for thinking about things that can’t be quickly pinned down. In the kid lit world, it’s been a time for controversy, as the Newbery Award, generally given to a middle grade novel, went to a picture book, and a large number of the other awards went to writers and illustrators of color, making most people rejoice but some publicly speculate that diversity was rewarded over quality.
It’s been a time when a picture book about George Washington’s personal slave proudly baking him a birthday cake has been withdrawn from sale after protests over its racial insensitivity, even though its highly respected African-American editor defended its basis in fact. This follows angry debate over several other books and whether their creators made things hurtful and misleading to young readers.
These have been difficult, painful, confusing conversations. I’ve only taken the smallest part in them, for one because at this point, it’s hard to be sure either side, though both are undeniably well-intentioned, is listening to the other. And for two because yes, I’m aware of and afraid of my own privilege and how it blurs my view of the world. What do I know about living inside another skin? All I can do is read about other experiences, and listen to other voices, and then, try to imagine.
My new middle grade novel, “Every Single Second”, is a departure for me. It’s about class and race and there is a violent tragedy at its heart. It’s a book I didn’t want to write but had to. I love the characters; I’m proud of the work I did on it; I so look forward to talking to kids about it.
Yet as the time nears for it to go out into the world, I fear for it. Will it offend or anger someone? Will someone pillory its views? Should I have stuck to non-controversial topics, to things we can all agree on and get warm-fuzzy over? I’m pretty sure the answer to the first two questions is yes. I’m certain the answer to the third one is no.
Reading can be the world’s most comforting activity, but it can, and sometimes should, be a risky endeavor. We need stories that stir and goad and unsettle us, that get us talking and questioning, that may even get us out of our chairs and on our feet, wanting to do something. There are stories that fit cozily between “Once upon a time” and “the end”, but there are also stories that begin way before the first page, and that go on long after the final one. That was the kind of book I had to write this time.
Erin Murphy, a beloved literary agent, had this to say to writers in a Facebook post: “Do the good work of studying, of consulting, of listening to your hearts, of considering how the details of your story will make your readers feel. It’s true, it may fail anyway—but that is the work artists must do, and the risk artists must take. You must be WILLING TO FAIL for the effort of trying, and nothing is worth the effort more than children.”
Nothing is worth the effort more than children.