Writing Tough Topics in MG fiction
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Melissa: It’s going well, thank you.
Melissa: I’m so excited to talk with you.
Hannah: Me too. I think this is a really good topic to get to cover so I’m excited that you wanted to discuss it.
Melissa: Yeah, I am here to talk about it.
Hannah: Perfect. For anybody who doesn’t know, Melissa writes middle grade fiction and her debut novel, Just Under the Clouds, will release on June 5th, 2018. Melissa, can you talk a little bit about Just Under the Clouds?
Melissa: Sure. So Just Under the Clouds is for middle grade readers. It’s about a 12 year old girl named Cora. She lives in Brooklyn and she is homeless. She’s kind of dealing with the death of her father about several years before this and dealing with kind of instability in her home life. And her mother and sister also live with her and they’ve had the shelter that they live in has been ransacked and they are now living with a friend of her mother’s, an old friend. And so Cora is kind of dealing with that issue but also just friendships in her life and kind of trying to figure out what is the meaning of home and where she belongs. And she l oves trees and plants and growing things all around Brooklyn and she’s trying to understand what makes them grow and thrive so that she can find a place where she can grow and thrive. I think that kind of covers it.
Hannah: Wow that sounds amazing! Those are a lot of tough topics you’re taking on in that book. So homelessness and the death of loved ones, what made you decide to take on those hard topics specifically in a middle-grade book?
Melissa: Well, I don’t think it was something that I really decided like “I’m going to take on the topic of homelessness”. It was really, it kind of came organically and more naturally than that. It started– this book had a few false starts. I really wanted to write about tree climbing– kids climbing trees in Brooklyn– and then it kind of evolved into a story about a girl who was interested in trees, like I said, and how things grow. And that sort of led to this feeling of trying to understand permanence and that led to this idea of finding home. And so it really started more with character and listening to her story and trying to understand what she wanted to find. So it became more thematic about this idea of finding home and searching for meaning and where you sort of exist and where you belong. And that’s kind of how the topic of homelessness came about. So it wasn’t something I really like set out to do, but it kind of evolved, and I wanted to make sure that it felt like organic to the character.
Hannah: Wow, that’s really interesting. When you realized that it was starting to take that direction of covering the homeless topic, was that something that was scary or difficult for you as a writer, or was it just kind of a natural course?
Melissa: It was a little scary because I don’t have that experience in my life, and I wanted to make sure that I got it right. And I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t like, “I’m taking on this issue book of homelessness and writing about the issue of a homeless child.” I really wanted it to feel like this is about a girl who, you know, is this human character, and I wanted to really deal with what she might be grappling with in life. So I didn’t want it to feel like stereotypical, or let my kind of ideas about what it means to be homeless come in, because I don’t really know what it’s like to do that. So I talked to people, and I read a lot to try and get the small things right, but I really focused on making sure that the character felt real and true.
Hannah: Wow. So how did you go about making sure that it was kind of a correct representation? Who did you talk to and what kind of books was it that you read?
Melissa: You know I read a lot of fiction, that’s kind of my jam. So I just read a few books that had homeless characters in them to see kind of how they dealt with things, and then I talked to a few people who had had the experience of a lot of, like, impermanence in their lives when they were younger and not having a permanent home. Because I sort of learned as I was going through this that homelessness isn’t always just about, like, you’re living on the street or something like that. It’s really that you just don’t have a permanent place to settle, and so that was interesting to me. And then also there was a really great expose that the New York Times did several years ago about a homeless child living in New York City. It was very long and very involved and very interesting and I learned a lot about that. The girl’s name is Dasani for anyone who’s looking for that story. It’s fascinating, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s hopeful too. so I think it’s an interesting story for people to check out. They can look for it.
Hannah: Wow! Those all sound like really good resources, thank you. Why do you think that it’s important for middle grade readers to have fiction that touches on the more difficult topics?Melissa: I think it’s important because, really, it’s quite simple, it’s that children are dealing with these issues in their lives. We can shelter them from it as much as we want but the fact is that children are dealing with difficult issues in their lives, and when they see it in a book I think it can help them find some light in some in some darkness. And for children who aren’t experiencing it, I think it can open their eyes and give them a safe place to understand what might be happening in the world that they don’t know a lot about.
Hannah: So that actually ties into another question that I had– was that as you were writing this, or as you kind of realized that story I was going in that direction, did you find yourself– that you were writing more to educate readers who may not be aware of those hard topics, or for people who are going through it? Or a little bit of both?
Melissa: I feel like I just really wanted to tell a good story, and obviously I am writing for a younger audience so that, you know, it sometimes does seep in, thinking about that, but I really just wanted to tell a good story, and I really felt like I was listening to the character. Which I know sounds kind of funny, but I really wanted her to tell her story and for me to, you know, put it on the page and have it feel natural and organic. So I wasn’t totally thinking about, like it’s hard to say that I wasn’t thinking about my audience, but just that I was trying to tell a good story first and foremost. I don’t know if I answered your question.
Hannah: No that makes perfect sense. So what about– what are some main pitfalls that you see in books that are trying to take on hard topics, specifically middle grade books?
Melissa: I feel like it may come back to that piece that I was saying about it feeling natural and organic. You know there are lots of ways to kind of deal with difficult topics. Maybe you’ve had experience with it and so it allowed your experience to creep in, and sometimes that can be a hindrance, but sometimes it allows for a better story. I think it always really comes down to making sure that it feels natural and organic to how a 12 year old or that middle grade age– so I guess it’s between like eight and twelve– how that character might be feeling and keeping it organic to the character. Pitfalls that I guess I would see is, like, making it into such an issue book that the issue is the only part of the story and you’re not feeling like you’re attaching to a character or a theme and that you’re just sort of following these notes that the author wants to hit. You know, so I think that readers, especially young readers, can see that, and I can sometimes see that in some stories where it just feels like the author’s trying to hit a note or a message rather than telling me a really great story.
Hannah: So it’s just, kind of, you have to try and be honest and real to your characters rather than kind of having this checklist that you’re trying to go down and hit all of these claims.
Melissa: Oh, I think so. I think that’s what it comes down to, and that’s with any good story I think
Hannah: Okay, yeah getting to that. And in the instance of trying to be true to these kind of middle grade characters, how do you go about getting in the mindset of a child who’s going through a really difficult time?
Melissa: Oh, well, I was a child. So that’s one great thing about writing for kids is that I have that experience. So I always kind of tap into what I was grappling with at that age, and even if I might not have been grappling with something so difficult as, you know, not having a permanent home, I was always dealing with issues of “where do I belong and where do I fit in.” And I kind of just tapped into that because I think a lot of kids, no matter what their experience or what their home lives are like, are often dealing with that “where do I fit and where do I belong” and “what is home” and “what does it mean to belong somewhere.” Whether it’s with people or in a place or at school or in a family or with a friendship, I think there’s a lot of ways to look at feeling at home with where you are and who you’re with.
Hannah: Right. Do you think that the way that a difficult topic is handled differs depending on whether you’re writing middle grade or young adult?
Melissa: I think so. You know I think that some young adult literature can, you know, dig maybe deeper or take on tougher topics but I hesitate to even say that because I think that if it’s done well and it’s done gently and it’s done honestly and truthfully, that you can pretty much do anything in middle grade. I don’t know if there’s a limit to what you can talk about, because kids are experiencing so many different things in their lives, and we want to be able to mirror that in what we write. I hesitate to say– I don’t know that’s a tough question. I hesitate to say that you can do more in YA than in middle grade, but you know there may be some more things that you could take on with like sex and language or something in young adult literature that you might not want to take on for a middle grade reader. But in terms of actual topics, like, I don’t know that there are limitations. I could be wrong.
Hannah: Well perfect because that was actually my next question– was that there’s always controversy surrounding, you know, what should go into different age groups. You know can you talk about this in middle grade fiction, can you talk about this in young adults? So I was wondering– so you’d said, you know, probably you can take on most topics in middle grade. Do you think that it needs to be handled in a less direct way or a more subtle way? Or maybe I see a lot of middle grade books using kind of fantastical elements to explain harder topics. Do you think it’s important to do that, or do you think you can handle it very similarly to what you would with for another slightly older age group?
Melissa: Well I don’t think you have to add a fantastical element. I think that’s definitely one way to do it. I’m thinking of a few books t at have done that so wonderfully. I’m thinking of The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner and Rules for StealingStars by Corey Ann Haydu, two books that take on very difficult topics. The first about heroin addiction, and the second deals with alcoholism with a parent, and they both also have magical elements, and I think that’s definitely one strategy that you can use. My book doesn’t have any sort of magical or fantastical elements, it stays pretty rooted in reality. But I think just staying true to what twelve-year-old experience– or I keep saying 12 but with that middle grade reader– experiences in life I think just staying true to that voice and staying true to who they are at that age kind of keeps you in line. So yeah.
Hannah: Yeah, that makes sense. Can you recommend any resources for writers who are looking to write about difficult topics, but they are not sure where to start even research wise or even, yeah, mostly research wise?
Melissa: (Coughing) Sorry about that. Sure, resources. I think the best resources that we have are actually books that are already out there. I think that sort of seeing how other authors take on tough topics and there are plenty of books out there in the world that do that. I think that’s probably a writer’s best resource. I always think that. In terms of research, I think there are so many interesting stories in the news, and rather than necessarily reading, like, hard news all the time there’s a lot of human interest pieces. There are so many opportunities right now where people are able to share their stories, and I think just reading online reading, human interest pieces, reading magazines, can really help us understand other people’s stories, and I think that’s one place to start. But again I always hesitate to be like, you know a lot of times I think people say like, “oh I do want to take on this really difficult topic about say immigration or something like that,” but I would hesitate to like just, like jump right in and be like, “I’m gonna take it” on and as opposed to like, “I’m really interested in this and I’m interested in, say–I’m just using immigration as like an example– like I’m really interested in human experience” rather than saying like, “oh I want to take on the topic of immigration because its a hot topic right now” or something like that. I think like wanting to understand an experience is a great way to look at it and think about how you might understand that experience better and ways to understand it better.
Hannah: Right, that reminds me of something I heard online the other day. Somebody said if you’re looking to explain something, then you’re preaching in your story. If you’re looking to explore something, then you’re actually writing something worth reading, or something along those lines.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah.
Hannah: So do you think– it sounds like your approach to writing tends to be more character-driven. Do you think if you start with a character that that can kind of help make your themes spring up more organically?
Melissa: Yeah, I’m definitely someone who often starts with character or place before kind of understanding exactly even what this story’s about. So yeah, yeah, and that’s not for everyone. A lot of people have a plot that they want to conjure up first but for me it always comes down to character and voice. I’m listening to that voice and understanding that story first and foremost.
Hannah: Can you– do you have any favorite middle grade books that you think handled some more difficult topics well?
Melissa: Yeah, like I said, I mentioned Kate Messner’s book The Seventh Wish. It’s about a girl who is ice fishing and she discovers a fish who she believes grants wishes. And her wishes start off like very simple and then you know, like wanting her friend to pass an exam, and wanting another friend actually to have his dad get off his back about being on the basketball team, and having him have a good game and things like that. And it slowly turns into finding– discovering– that her sister it has an addiction and wanting to wish that away and she has to kind of learn that it isn’t something that she can wish away. It’s a beautiful story, and it takes on a very difficult topic, but a topic that a lot of people, especially in this country, are dealing with. The heroin epidemic is huge and, you know, so we have to just assume that many children are dealing with that in their families and in their communities. I just think that’s a book that just takes it on so well. What else? Again I recommend Rules for Stealing Stars by Corey Ann Haydu, which takes on a parent’s alcoholism. I mean there are so many. Those are the two that come to mind.
Hannah: So I think a lot of readers are familiar with topics like cancer, or parents being sick, or getting divorced in middle grade fiction, but do you think there are certain topics that are underrepresented in this genre that it would be good to see more in fiction?
Melissa: You know there’s so much out there that people have done, and there’s so many fantastic books that take on tough topics already. Personally what I would love to see more as a reader, and as someone who cares a lot about middle grade books and reads them a lot, I’d love to see more books about kids around the world rather than just children in this country. There certainly are books that take place outside of the United States, I don’t want to make it sound like there aren’t, but I just I’d love to see more, to understand experiences around the world, and how kids live around the world, and what they might be dealing with in different places. So that’s just something that I think that I thought of that I’d love to see more of for sure.
Hannah: Yeah that would be really cool. Let’s see. I think I have run out of my list of questions. As we were talking was there something that you mentioned that you thought “oh yeah I’d like to discuss this a little bit further?”
Melissa: Trying to think. One thing that– one reason why I like it when people take on topics that are a little bit more difficult or harder is because I feel like books are really safe places to experience tough things. I just remember as a kid reading and, you know, sometimes reading something that was difficult and thinking “I’m not ready for this” and actually like closing the book and then taking it on at a later time. I remember this book called Izzy Will-Nilly by Cynthia Voigt. Am I pronouncing that right? Cynthia. I think so. I might be. Anyway and I remember it– that it was about a girl, I believe it was, who had had an accident, and I remember thinking like “this is too much for me right now” and then I took it up sort of later on and I just felt like I could experience it safely, you know, within the pages of a book. And I think that’s that’s important to note for people who may be skeptical of sharing tough things with their kids, or teachers who may not want to bring something difficult into the classroom. Feeling like they have to shelter readers in some way. I think readers know and are aware of what they can handle, and I think that, I think, we need to trust young readers to know that they they can experience something safely within a book. And for kids who are experiencing these things, I think it’s just so important to see their experiences mirrored and see that others are dealing with similar things that they are and that they may not know that other children are dealing with. And they can see that there’s hope for them. I think that’s just so important. I hope that that came through in what we were talking about. So yeah.
Hannah: Yeah, that makes sense. How–so like you said sometimes you can read something, especially as a younger person, and just think “oh I that this is hard for me” and it might be difficult to sort out all of your thoughts on the matter. So with that in mind, what do you think that teachers and parents and guardians can be doing to kind of allow kids to explore these books but then also have places where they can discuss them if they’re confused about something they’ve come across?
Melissa: Yeah, I think that that’s exactly it. I think that’s kind of what I love about the idea of a teacher introducing it in the classroom, or a parent taking it to their child is because it immediately invites that conversation that says, “I’m handing this book to you and now we can talk after you’re done with it if you have questions, we can talk about it,” and I think that that’s so cool. Rather than kids sort of stumbling upon things and then not knowing if they can reach out to someone. I love the idea of the invitation of handing a book over. That’s an automatic invitation to say, “Let’s talk about it.” So yeah I like that.
Hannah: Alright, I think we are at the end of our time. Can you tell us where we can follow you online and where we can go to hopefully pre-order your book? Is it available for pre-order?
Melissa: It is. You can pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indie Bound, and all the usual sites. And you can find me at melissasarno.com and my Twitter and Instagram is also Melissa Sarno. And that’s one l and two s’s for the Melissa I know there’s other Melissas who spell it differently. That’s the one.
Hannah: Nice. Alright, so thank you so much for coming and discussing this. For people listening, again this has been Melissa Sarno and we were discussing writing tough topics in middle grade fiction. So thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. It’s been really helpful.
Melissa: Thank you, Heather. This was really great.
Hannah: Great. Alright, bye, everybody.
Melissa: Bye, thanks, everyone.