How Do I Write About Controversial Subjects in Children's Books?

by Laura Backes, Children's Book Insider

After the Columbine shootings, I wrote that, as writers, onething we can do is realize that all kids deal with pressures andproblems that we never faced growing up, and we should make agreater effort to address this in middle grade and young adultliterature. I got many responses to my piece, a number of whichsaid, "I agree, but I've tried unsuccessfully to sell mycontroversial young adult novel for two years. Do you thinkpublishers routinely reject realistic subjects?"

Some, perhaps, are. But by and large, I feel most mainstreampublishers will take a chance on a novel that deals with a touchysubject if it's well-written. And several of the more gritty, yetwell-reviewed titles to have come out in the last few years arenot from well-known authors, but those who have published only afew books, if any. I also believe the majority of establishedpublishers don't worry about censorship or community book-banning,but will publish a book if they feel it says something important.So the question remains, why can't some authors get these bookspublished?

* Is the controversy gratuitous?

Controversy is in the eye of the beholder, but subjects thathave raised eyebrows in the past range from death of an importantcharacter to teenage sex/pregnancy, physical abuse, drug/alcoholuse, homosexuality, and violence. But the best books aren't aboutthe controversy, they're about how the character handles thesituation. The main character may be abused by an alcoholicfather, but that's not the only thing going on in his life. Hemay also be on the track team, or adopt a stray dog, or hold downan after-school job. The abuse certainly affects and influenceshis world, but it's not what the book's about. And while theabuse might define this character at the beginning of the book,the story is really about how the character grows beyond being anabused child, and finds aspects to himself that are worth saving.He might leave home, get help, or report his father to the police.For these books to be effective, the character must becomeempowered and find a solution to his problem. Your readers haveto learn there is a way out.

If your book is about a very specific subject, and remainsspecific, then you'll only appeal to a small audience who candirectly relate to that situation. However, if you use the topicas a springboard to more universal themes--low self-esteem, peerpressure, feeling like a failure-- then the story become timeless.You'll gain a wider audience and an editor's approval.

You also have to handle hot topics in an age-appropriate way.Books for middle grade readers often imply the events that havelanded the character in his current dilemma, without muchdetailed or graphic description. For example, in JamesStevenson's The Unprotected Witness (Greenwillow), a sequel tohis acclaimed The Bones in the Cliff, 11-year-old Pete hasfinally found a home with a friend and her grandmother afterspending a life on the run with his alcoholic father who waswanted by the law. When Pete's father is murdered and he must goto St. Louis to identify the body, we get a sense of Pete'searlier life through flashbacks. And we see the results thoughPete's inability to make many friends or follow the rules atschool. The reader experiences Pete's anger at his father, histurmoil over loving a man whom he also despises, without seeingall the details of the father's violent alcoholic evenings.Because this is a story of feelings and consequences, it touchesany reader who has ever has a sense of not belonging.

*Is your character realistic?

Your main character has to think and feel like a real child ofthat age. The events of the book must be seen through thatcharacter's eyes, and interpreted through that character's pointsof reference. You can't impose your adult interpretation on thestory, nor can you make your character too innocent if hercircumstances have forced her to grow up quickly. Above all, yourmain character must have some redeeming traits that ultimatelyallow him to overcome his situation, or at least point him in theright direction. Characters who are purely evil work well asantagonists, but are not sympathetic enough to be the focus ofthe story.

* Do you have a good grasp of the basics of storytelling?

Most often, manuscripts are rejected because the writer simplydidn't create a strong book. Plots are contrived, characters areone-dimensional, the dialogue sounds stiff, the ending wasn'tbelievable. If you're telling a story with a controversial theme,you have to work even harder at mastering the basics of goodwriting. The story must be so compelling that the editor can'thelp but say yes.