Books as Vaccines

Monday, August 24, 2015

My current work-in-progress is the darkest one I have written—and it’s for a middle grade audience.

I had a short e-mail conversation with my online critique partner about whether Creating Esther was too dark for the age group. She thought it would be fine for public school students but felt that some home-schooled children are more sheltered. The conversation was short because she agreed with my response, and it’s hard to have a long discussion when everyone is in sync.

So what was my response? First, I’ve read other dark books written for middle graders, and I think mine will fit in. Second, I plan on submitting Creating Esther to secular publishers. The book is not being written for the home-school audience, although I hope they will read it. But third and most importantly, all children, including those who are home-schooled, need to understand the real world or they won’t be able to handle adversity when it comes.

I think of these darker middle grade books as a vaccine. Vaccines give you low-grade (often dead) disease germs to build up an immunity so that the disease will not harm you when the live germs come on full-force. In the same way, reading realistic fiction helps immunize children against harmful emotional responses to real world tragedies and heartbreak.

As in real life, every ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it should have hope. That’s what happens in Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. The protagonist’s best friend dies in an accident when he’s not there to save her, and he takes it hard. But then he realizes that his younger sister needs him, and he finds he can go on living by helping her.

Life isn’t all sweetness and light, and children need to know that.

So don’t shy away from reality when writing middle grade fiction.


The photograph at the head of this post shows Japanese American children getting vaccinated at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Arcadia, California on April 6, 1942. Clem Albers took the picture as part of his official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

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