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The Child in Me, the Adult in Her; Mature Issues in Children’s Literature

In early February I read Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s middle grade graphic novel This One Summer and I wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

I mean, I absolutely loved the book itself. Not one of Mariko’s words were wasted. Jillian demonstrated how much more powerful a scene or exchange can be when it’s rendered visible. As a reader, I loved every page. But seeing the story as a writer unnerved me. It pushed me to reconsider my understanding of children’s literature.

The fact that adults write children’s books, control the market for children’s books, and open and close the gate for children and books to reach one another is a deep irony not lost on me. When I think about the books I connected with most as a child, I was never aware of an adult in the equation. The relationship was strictly between me and the story. I didn’t see an author hiding between the pages.

In order to maintain a lack of authorial presence in my own work, I often force myself back into my childhood memories when writing. Or I remain quiet at the keyboard and let another voice, the kid voice, take over. Of course I bring myself into the work, but it’s always my younger self. When I read This One Summer, what surprised me most was that the two main characters—children—were looking into a world they didn’t fully understand. But I, as an adult reader, did.

At first, the summer coastal town felt like a “grown-ups only” world. But the more I allowed the narrative of This One Summer to sit with me, the more I thought about all the concepts and images I was drawn to as a kid that remained mysteries until much later in my life. I began to realize that mature subjects and children co-exist. To censor these subjects would alter a child’s reality. Books with heavy material can be children’s books. The delineation of canon is instead marked by the lens and perspective on such material.

Room by Emma Donoghue often emerges in this kind of discussion. While Donoghue’s very adult book clocks in at over 90k words, her protagonist is a five-year-old boy, Jack. Jack’s voice certainly feels authentic, and while reading I did see the world through his eyes. But it was an extremely dark world. Despite his naïveté, Jack’s lens gives the reader an unfiltered depiction of violence and depression. His perspective is not one we expect to see in the children’s literature canon.

What This One Summer achieves as a children’s book is that its narrative touches on issues such as infertility, past trauma, depression, teen pregnancy, suicide, etc… but those issues lie in a backdrop, behind the much closer issues of family, of changing friendship, of finding oneself. These themes remain at the heart of the book. Additionally, while the Tamakis allow their characters to struggle, they ultimately close the narrative with a hope that prevails over sadness, anger, and isolation.

I suppose these observations would take the shape of an essay instead of a blog post if I didn’t explain my own personal connection to the issue of mature content in children’s stories.

Originally, I had planned to release a blog post this week on story visuals, and how to see a longer-form narrative without dialogue. I had a draft ready to upload. And then… and then I underwent two emotionally gut-wrenching and extremely painful medical procedures that tossed everything else off track in my life. I was bruised and torn. I struggled to keep the pain away from my voice while writing. Kid-me wouldn’t have had to deal with this, I thought.

And then I remembered This One Summer.

I thought of those two young girls watching the broken teenagers and adults around them. I began to imagine a 12-yr-old girl watching me. I wondered what she would think, or say. I wondered if she would see a connection in the shame she felt as a girl on the cusp of womanhood and the shame I felt at not having control of my own womanhood. Probably not. But still, I was comforted by the idea of her in the room. She reminded me that I still was a little bit of that confused 12-yr-old girl.

My identity as an adult, I’ve slowly come to realize, doesn’t exist on a separate plane outside of my identity as a child. There is a very real connection between kids and adults. In narrative, they’re always reaching across a seeming void, trying to read shades of each other. Sometimes the adult characters are opaque; they push their issues deep under their skin where the child can’t see them. But sometimes, as in the case of This One Summer, the issues surface. Adults become semi-readable. Translucent, perhaps, if not fully transparent.

This “eureka!” moment may not seem so monumental. But as a writer, as a children’s book writer, I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll see this connection take root in my work. To offer glimpses of adult pain, and discover how children encounter and deconstruct that pain through their lens.

* * *

A year and a half ago, I set a book aside. I’ve written about this book before, in earlier posts. I never thought it would make its way back to me so soon. But as I laid in bed earlier this week feeling lousy and sorry for myself, I peeked into the book’s designated desktop folder to see what I would find.

Right around the time I called it quits, I wrote up a synopsis of what I would want the story to look like if I could do it all over. The characters changed. Setting changed. Everything was different. I’m not even sure why I kept the same title rather than simply creating another folder. Something in my head must have told me that at its core, this was the same story.

I reread the hurried synopsis I wrote a year ago and nearly started sobbing. There was an added adult character I hadn’t remembered writing. As I read her story, and learned her secret, I saw that she was me. She was me before I became her, if that makes sense. The synopsis felt like an old fortune-reading of my life.

This character had been through the pain I was currently going through. She felt ashamed and guilt-ridden. Her daughter, my protagonist, had grown-up peeking at slivers of her mother she witnessed late at night or whenever the woman didn’t realize her daughter was watching.

I’m not sure what I would have thought of this synopsis had I read it before encountering This One Summer. I might have brushed it off. I might have wondered if this was an idea for an adult book, the way Room was ultimately an adult book. But events have a way of falling in the order they’re meant to.

I’m still healing this week, and slowly reexamining the writing projects I left behind before I first ventured to the doctor’s office. Of course there is DERBY DAREDEVILS Book 2, which I plan to blog about soon. There is also ANTVENTURE, floating in some state of completion. But I can’t take my thoughts away from this other story, the one I never thought I would pick up again. So many authors talk about opening a door and seeing their characters and thinking “Oh, there you are.” I almost never experience this. I have to chase my characters down, scribbling drafts around them until finally they cooperate and lead me down the real story.

But after I read that abandoned DOPPELGÄNGER synopsis, I closed my eyes. I opened a door to a house in the suburbs. My protagonist didn’t live in this house. Of course not. But she was inside.

I walked down a hall and passed a closed door.

Her mom is putting the family dog to sleep, I thought. And the adults are next to her.

I didn’t think this so much as I knew it. It just was. And a few more steps down, in another room with the door cracked open, there was my girl. She knelt on the rug with a deck of tarot cards in front of her. Two sniffling children sat across, holding hands and listening as the girl told them of their dog’s new journey awaiting in the afterlife.

I’m still standing in that doorway. I don’t know all the details yet. I do know that if I were to write this story, it would poke at places I’m afraid of. It would illuminate corners I usually keep dark and quiet when I’m writing. But I also know that someday, I need to write this story.

I need to write it for the person I am now. I need to write it because I would have been drawn right into the pages as a young girl.

But mostly, I need to write this story to shift my conception of adults in children’s books. For this kind of story helps me understand why children’s books are written by adults. Why we cannot adequately write about confusion and mistrust and frustration until we see it on the other side—until we know the full shape of the iceberg, both the mysterious glimmer at the surface and the shadowy canyon under the water.

I used to have a bit of Peter Pan syndrome as a writer. I thought the only way I could write for children effectively was to stay a child. I worried that the day I connected to an adult character over a child character was the day my kid-voice would crack and drop four octaves.

But I don’t think that’s true. I think childhood can go on. It’s something shared and beautiful that adults carry pieces of through life. I also think that adulthood isn’t waiting behind a closed gate. Children carry facets of adult dreams and fears in their pockets. They learn about themselves as they decipher adult issues like riddles.

Childhood and adulthood feed into each other. It’s how we view that relationship, and how those themes are conveyed, that make a book fall within a specific canon.

Much of my life has been colored by adult experiences. But I think I still have a lot to say, in a voice I know children can connect to. I can see my childhood self across the room. I’ve always been interested and fascinated by her.

Now, for the first time, I think she might be fascinated by me, too.

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