Light Touch, Gritty Themes: Dealing with Big Issues in Books for Kids and Young Adults

For this talk, a panel of Australian authors convened in the Living Room to discuss their individual approaches in their writing to the sensitive issues that resonate with their readers. The room was packed full of people with those arriving slightly later having to squeeze in corners and sit on the floor.

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Norman Jorgensen started the session by talking about his best selling picture book, “In Flander’s Fields” (pictured above) the profits from which he claimed funds his annual holidays. Jorgenson had had difficulty getting the book published due to it being centred on a soldier during the war and not about “rabbits and flowers” as most children’s picture books of that time were. He also mentioned other gritty picture books on war and the environment such as Where the Buffaloes Begin by Olaf Baker. Picture books need not be the light-hearted page turners they usually are but can also be an avenue to give food for thought to young children.

The two other authors on the panel, Julia Lawrinson and Dianne Wolfer, both talked about the importance of having a light touch when writing about hard issues such as abortion, underage pregnancy and discrimination. “It’s not the material, it’s the way that you handle it.” says Lawrinson. She showed us a cover of her book “Losing It” which I thought was particularly clever (see below). It is a story about exploring sexuality from the perspective of a teenage girl. Lawrinson said that she wrote it as there were many books for boys about sex but none for girls at the time, as if it was somehow taboo. She made the story humorous and fun, believing that books like these were needed as they made girls think about these issues and how they handle relationships. Ironically, the librarians who had no objections to stocking her book were from strongly conservative Catholic high schools whereas public schools in some cases banned her book due to fear of backlash from parents.

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Wolfer agrees that the “light touch” should often be done with humor, and is a necessity when writing gritty children’s books as “it’s the light touch that makes it accessible to young children.” Her book, Choices, relates the story of a teenage girl with an unwanted pregnancy. Her book is unique in that it shows both paths that the teenager may take. Though the main protagonist is Elizabeth, she is “split” into two people in the book as Lizzy who decides to have the baby and Beth who decides to get an abortion. This weaving of the two choices and their different consequences is done skilfully throughout the book. Wolfer says that “If you create characters your reader cares about, they will go with your character to dark and difficult places.”

Having said that, when the panel was asked if there were any topics that were too gritty to write about, suicide and eating disorders were mentioned. Lawrinson argues that books about eating disorders have to be done right as they may be a trigger or a form of justification for potential readers who are currently suffering from eating disorders. All three authors in the panel agree that they face censorship issues often not because of the tough issues they tackle, but rather the use of vulgarities in their books, especially Lawrinson as she writes YA novels about teens living in rough neighbourhoods. She notes wryly that often it is the adults that take offence and place a language warning on her work, rather than the teens who hardly notice them. Ultimately, all three authors in the panel agree that there is a need to write gritty books for children and young adults, but it is a task to undertake with the utmost care and lightest touch.

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