Writing About Controversial Subjects
by Laura Backes,
Write4Kids.com—The Children's Writing SuperSite
After the Columbine shootings, I wrote that, as writers, one
thing we can do is realize that all kids deal with pressures and problems that
we never faced growing up, and we should make a greater effort to address this
in middle grade and young adult literature. I got many responses to my piece,
a number of which said, "I agree, but I've tried unsuccessfully to sell my
controversial young adult novel for two years. Do you think publishers
routinely reject realistic subjects?"
Some, perhaps, are. But by and large, I feel most mainstream
publishers will take a chance on a novel that deals with a touchy subject if
it's well-written. And several of the more gritty, yet well-reviewed titles to
have come out in the last few years are not from well-known authors, but those
who have published only a few books, if any. I also believe the majority of
established publishers 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 books published?
Is the controversy gratuitous?
Controversy is in the eye of the beholder, but subjects that
have raised eyebrows in the past range from death of an important character to
teenage sex/pregnancy, physical abuse, drug/alcohol use, homosexuality, and
violence. But the best books aren't about the controversy, they're about how
the character handles the situation. The main character may be abused by an
alcoholic father, but that's not the only thing going on in his life. He may
also be on the track team, or adopt a stray dog, or hold down an after-school
job. The abuse certainly affects and influences his world, but it's not what
the book's about. And while the abuse might define this character at the
beginning of the book, the story is really about how the character grows
beyond being an abused 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 become empowered and find a
solution to his problem. Your readers have to learn there is a way out.
If your book is about a very specific subject, and remains
specific, then you'll only appeal to a small audience who can directly relate
to that situation. However, if you use the topic as a springboard to more
universal themes—low self-esteem, peer pressure, feeling like a failure—then the story become timeless. You'll gain a wider audience and an editor's
You also have to handle hot topics in an
age-appropriate way. Books for middle grade readers often imply the events
that have landed the character in his current dilemma, without much detail or graphic
description. For example, in James Stevenson's
The Unprotected Witness (Greenwillow),
a sequel to his acclaimed
The Bones in the Cliff, 11-year-old Pete has finally
found a home with a friend and her grandmother after spending a life on the
run with his alcoholic father who was wanted by the law. When Pete's father is
murdered and he must go to St. Louis to identify the body, we get a sense of
Pete's earlier life through flashbacks. And we see the results though Pete's
inability to make many friends or follow the rules at school. The reader
experiences Pete's anger at his father, his turmoil over loving a man whom he
also despises, without seeing all the details of the father's violent
alcoholic evenings. Because this is a story of feelings and consequences, it
touches any 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
of that age. The events of the book must be seen through that character's
eyes, and interpreted through that character's points of reference. You can't
impose your adult interpretation on the story, nor can you make your character
too innocent if her circumstances have forced her to grow up quickly. Above
all, your main character must have some redeeming traits that ultimately allow
him to overcome his situation, or at least point him in the right direction.
Characters who are purely evil work well as antagonists, but are not
sympathetic enough to be the focus of the story.
Do you have a good grasp of the basics of storytelling?
Most often, manuscripts are rejected because the writer
simply didn't create a strong book. Plots are contrived, characters are
one-dimensional, the dialogue sounds stiff, the ending wasn't believable. If
you're telling a story with a controversial theme, you have to work even
harder at mastering the basics of good writing. The story must be so
compelling that the editor can't help but say yes.
About the Author:
Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for
Children's Writers, and co-founder of the
Children's Authors Bootcamp seminars. For more information about writing children's
books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more,
visit Children's Book Insider's home on the Web at
Copyright 2001, Children's Book