At nearly 50, I hale from the “chin up and cheer up” generation. When I was a kid, feelings weren’t something to be discussed so much as dispatched with. Being good meant being happy – or at least acting happy.
But here’s the thing. Those feelings – the other ones – the ones like jealousy and worry, anger and fear? They never went away; they just went into hiding. (And ended up making some of us feel repressed or explosive or both!)
Flash forward to raising my own children. “Cheer up” is a hard habit to break. These are not easy-to-embrace emotions we’re talking about, especially if they roll out in the form of a four-year-old having a total conniption in the paint aisle at the Home Depot. And I’m speaking from experience here.
But one of the ways I’ve been able to practice being a little more emotionally inclusive is through my work. It’s there that I’m able to see and express all the complicated stuff – even in the littlest of people – the stuff that maybe isn’t the easiest or most attractive but, in the end, is the realest, the most true. And isn’t that what we’re all aiming for in literature? That no matter how fantastical it gets – no matter how futuristic or dystopian, no matter how many talking animals or magicians or muggles – it feels, at its heart, true.
Recently, I had a student ask me if I thought she’d be better at writing funny picture books or tender ones – as if a single book couldn’t be both and as if, god forbid, there were no other options in between. What about books in which the main characters are sad or ashamed, what about when they’re wry or shy or just plain upset?
In my various picture books, I’ve created characters who are pissed off and rather petulant (The Good-Pie Party), way too self-deprecating (Noodle & Lou), a little bit timid and confused (Happy Birthday, Bunny!).
The picture books I most love to read and learn from are equally mucky emotionally –Victoria Chang’s Is Mommy?, Deborah Underwood’s The Quiet Book, Audrey Vernick’s First Grade Dropout are all stellar examples.
There’s no “chin up” mandate here – it’s come-as-you-are, or as the kids say these days, “you be you.” It sounds flip, but honestly, they use that phrase because that’s what they want us to say to them! And that authenticity they’re hoping for in real life? It seems like we ought to give it to them in books too.
Ditto novels, by the way. This is not just a picture book experience. When I read reviews for middle grade and young adult novels, the phrase I’m always on the lookout for is “too easy” because that usually means it’s pat, easily resolved and not, at its heart, true. In my book The Great Good Summer, Ivy Green reckons with grief, worry and doubt, and she expresses herself with everything from sarcasm to selfishness, sweetness to rage. She’s twelve, and not everyone loves to see all of these things in a budding adolescent. But if I’m honest, they are some of the things I remember most about being twelve, and I’m not going to pretend for Ivy the way I pretended for me.
Still, censorship’s not dead and there are lots of well-meaning people out there – mostly parents – who are so worried about exposing their children to things that are painful or scary or sensual or, well, just complicated, that they want books to cheer up or shut up.
I get the fear and worry – really, I do. But I’m more worried about what all these kids are going to do with feelings and truths they’re not able to share, get help with, or fully understand. There’s a lovely quote I’ve heard echoed often in Buddhist circles that goes like this:
Three things cannot be long hidden.
The sun, the moon and the truth.
That makes this whole thing pretty inevitable, right? Who we are, as people, will be revealed, it just will. And I think part of my job as an author is to help with that revelation – carefully, consciously and responsibly. In that way I’m writing for the child I was, the children in my books if they were real, and all the other children – yours and my own – who are wholly real, imperfect, emotional, inspiring and deeply lovable.
Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of numerous beloved books for young people including the Caldecott-honored All the World and her debut middle-grade novel, The Great Good Summer. Liz lives in Austin, Texas, with her family, and is a frequent and popular presenter at schools, conferences, and literary festivals.
GIVEAWAY INFORMATION (from Stacey):
This giveaway is for autographed copies of The Great Good Summer and In the Canyon. Many thanks to Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster for donating the copies of Liz’s books for four lucky winners (one book per winner). For a chance to win this copy of either of Liz’s books, please leave a comment about this post by Saturday, June 4th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. We’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names will be announced at the bottom of this post, by Monday, June 6th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, Liz will sign your copy of her book and will ship it out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.) If you are the winner one of the books, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING — LIZ GARTON SCANLON. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Comments are now closed. Thank you to everyone who left a comment on this post. And thanks to Liz for responding to some of the reader comments! The following people’s commenter numbers came up when I used the random number generator (i.e., Mari Miyagi, Maureen Ingram, Meg Ouellette, and Vanessa W.) so they’ll win one of Liz’s books.