Writer to Reader
by Martin Waddell
Children are my audience. I write happy books and silly books and funny books and sometimes, at young adult level, I write disturbing books. I believe that it matters what writers for children write about, and it matters how they chose to do it, because books can be an influence for good or evil, and the audience is a particularly vulnerable one.
Most (but by no means all) adults have sufficient maturity to recognize cheap and exploitative treatment of serious issues for what it is, but maturity is just what children lack. In many cases, the more idealistic and intelligent a growing child is, the greater the confusion between the real world and the superficial and often violent world we present them with under the guise of entertainment or the next news story.
There is something we can do about it, and every good teacher, parent or child counselor tries to do it by talking to individual children, trying to explain what most often seems inexplicable, placing actions and emotions in the perspective of the human relationships from which they arise. As a writer for children I am doing exactly what that teacher, parent, or counselor would do, trying to present the awkward realities of the modern world in a way which makes them explicable to the immature mind.
My job as a writer is not to tell children what to think or do about a given situation, but to encourage them to think for themselves. That means dealing with subjects which children want to know about, deconstructing the black and white simplicities, and trying to present the grey areas in-between.
I go to work with two principles operating in my mind. These principles apply to all my books, I hope, including the books that fall into the "for fun" category. Children need fun, and I enjoy providing it, so long as I do it well.
The first principle is honesty, which means not dodging issues or offering instant pat solutions to complex problems. It means presenting the world to children through the lives of my characters in a way that will interest them, but also feel real. This means that actions have their consequences, just as in real life, and that wounds take time to heal. I feel that writing in this way is particularly important because our children are constantly presented with false images of the world, particularly soap operas and talk shows, where the long term consequences of actions and words are never played out. What we do today affects how we live tomorrow, and children need to have that message reinforced again and again. I hope to provide children with patterns of understanding, so that they are led to figure out for themselves how an apparently unrelated set of actions can develop into and influence other situations.
My novel The Kidnapping of Suzie Q concerns a 14-year-old girl who is taken hostage, almost by accident, in the course of a bungled robbery carried out by three teenagers. Suzie is much more intelligent than her captors, but this doesn't help her situation. The story is presented as a straight-forward thriller, but in the course of it Suzie disentangles the relationship between her three kidnappers, the desperately flawed, but genuine, love and friendship between them which leads, almost but not quite inevitably, to their crime. The aim is not to say glibly, "victims of society" and move on. They are to a limited extent the victims of society, but also the victims of their own actions, just as Suzie is.
The second principle is what I call the window of hope. I feel that I have no right to offer children a message of despair, because their minds are not mature enough to cope with it. In each situation, however bleak, I seek to present events honestly, but with an underlying message of hope, whether I am writing for infants or young adults.
As an example, my picture book for the very young, Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? deals with fear of the dark, the unknown. Little Bear can't sleep. Big Bear has brought him a series of lanterns which get progressively bigger and brighter, but...
"Why are you scared, Little Bear?" asked Big Bear.
"I don't like the dark," said Little Bear.
"What dark?" asked Big Bear.
"The dark all around us," said Little Bear.
"But I brought you the Biggest Lantern of Them All, and there isn't any dark left," said Big Bear.
"Yes there is," said Little Bear. " There is. Out there!" And he pointed out of the Bear Cave, at the night. Big Bear takes a frightened Little Bear out of the Bear Cave. "Oooooh! I'm scared," said Little Bear, cuddling up to Big Bear.
Big lifted Little Bear and cuddled him and said, "Look at the dark, Little Bear," And Little Bear looked.
"I've brought you the moon, Little Bear," said Big Bear.
"The bright yellow moon, and all the twinkly stars."
But Little Bear didn't say anything, for he had gone to sleep, warm and safe in Big Bear's arms.
Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? is written for the very small, but the phrase, "The dark all around us" encompasses a fear that reaches all of us, and the text suggests the answer to that fear - to face the darkness, and try to come to terms with it. The tiny reader is cocooned in the world of the Bear Cave, with the Big Bear to protect him. The darkness is there, but so is the light. The window of hope in that story is wide open, yet the problem is not ducked, but faced honestly.
Let's move up the age level a little, to the 8-12 year olds. In Little Obie and the Flood I chose to look at the subject of bereavement. In this story with a pioneer background, a young girl, Marty, is orphaned and comes to live with the narrator, Little Obie, and his grandparents. The up-front story consists of a number of linked action adventures. The underlying theme is concerned with Marty's eventual acceptance of her role in her new family. Marty's coming to terms with her bereavement is symbolized in the last story of the sequence when she comes down at night and plays with a set of wooden dancing dolls that Little Obie has crudely carved for his grandmother Effie's birthday. Effie discovers her alone, in the firelight:
She had the barrel-plank on her knee, and she was tap-tap-tapping to make the dolls dance.
"Marty?" Effie said, but she said it very softly because she didn't want to frighten her.
"You're our family," Marty said. "You're me, and that one's grandma with her big nose, and that one is Grandad with the humpy back, and the little skinny one down at the end, that's little Obie."
Some children will grasp what this is about, and some won't. I hope the ones who don't grasp it will still enjoy the book. The important thing for me, is that the message in the story is there to be found, if it is introduced to the right child, at the right time.
At the next level up, in my book Tango's Baby a seventeen year old useless, feckless boy, the Tango of the title, falls in love with a fourteen year girl and gets her pregnant. The boy is a wash-out; his only grace is an infinite capacity to give love, both to the girl, Crystal, and her baby, which is also his. Crystal is cleverer than Tango is. She learns from bitter experience that he will never be able to be a proper father to the child, so she leaves him. She takes Tango's baby from him. That is the basic story, and it does not have a happy ending, because that would be dishonest, and any intelligent adolescent would know that this was so. For the Tangos of the world, there are no happy endings. But there is a consistent awareness running through Tango's Baby that, hopeless as the direct protagonists may be, there are always people who will try to help them, sometimes at great personal cost to themselves. That is my window of hope, left open, but only just.
I believe it is important that writers go on writing some "difficult" books, as well as, but emphatically not instead of the happier sort, and that publishers should go on publishing these "difficult" books. It is equally important that teachers and librarians and academics continue selecting and discarding, discussing and analysing and making comparisons, with the needs of individual children in mind. Books on difficult subjects can be difficult to write, and sometimes you may feel that an individual writer has got the balance wrong - that needs saying too, because we learn by our mistakes. Everyone connected with literature for children has a duty to our vulnerable audience. Someone has to find the right book for the right child, at the right time.
That someone could be you.
Martin Waddell, who lives in County Down, Northern Ireland, has written over 100 books for children, some under the pseudonym Catherine Sefton. His Can't You Sleep, Baby Bear? (Candlewick, 1992), reviewed in the Sunday Times of London as "the most perfect children's book ever written or illustrated," has more than 400,000 copies in print in the United States, and another 100,000 copies in print worldwide. With The Kidnapping of Suzie Q (Candlewick, 1994) and Tango's Baby (Candlewick, 1995) he has also established himself as one of today's leading writers for adolescents.
Martin Waddell was a featured speaker at the 1998 ALAN Workshop in Nashville. After his talk, I asked if he would consider writing a piece for The ALAN Review. We truly appreciate his generous contribution, and the help of his publicist, Anne Leggat, of Candlewick Press. ---psc
Reference Citation: Waddell, Martin . (1999) "Writer to Reader." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 21-22 .