Saturday, April 26, 2008

Independence Day

All the kerfuffle over the columnist who let her nine-year-old ride the subway alone has led to some interesting discussions on writer's boards about how much freedom to give child characters in middle grade novels. What's your opinion? Do we pretend that kids are being raised the same way we were, and let our child characters go around town by themselves doing interesting things and getting into scrapes? (And then kids read it as fantasy?) Do we make up reasons why this particular kid has freedom, like the parents are out of town or something? Or do we have them sit at home texting their friends or going on carefully supervised playdates or having their "adventures" in some after-school program, because that's what real middle-class American kids do?

How many of us haven't had the experience, as a child, of the thrill of getting to choose what we do, free of adult supervision? These are confidence- and independence-building experiences.
And how many of us haven't had the experience of realizing, while we're doing something (or shortly thereafter), that we've put ourselves in a stupid, dangerous position? These are learning experiences, and thank goodness our parents never found out about them.

It's hard to be a parent. It's hard to look at your children and know that they need experiences that build the skills of independence. And to look at them and know that if anything ever happened to them, your life would be over. It's hard to hear about the snatchings that happen in people's front yards (or even in their homes!) and not get awfully paranoid. Reasonably, we know that there are not more predators now than there were when we were children, or when our parents were children. There's just more news. But that doesn't make it easier for mothers and fathers.

I think the bottom line for writers is that there are still lots of different childhoods to be had in this country alone. It's certainly unusual to find a parent who lets their nine year old wander around a city alone, so if you describe a family like this, be sure to include the details that make those parents believable. On the other hand, the Penderwick girls and Ingrid Levin-Hill leave the house regularly to wander around in the woods. Their parents are still protective parents, but the authors have grounded us in a setting that makes these parents' attitudes believable.

Different parents are protective in different ways, and that's what results in the different degrees of freedom that different children experience. Sometimes it seems like writers think they're just writing about their child mc. Well, yes and no. Don't forget to give your reader a sense of who's making the rules: understanding the major forces in a child character's life is part of understanding the character. And for most children, there are no forces more powerful than their parents.


Sarah Laurenson said...

My favorite book as a child was The Boxcar Children. It represented what I wished I could do - run away from home and live the life I thought I could live without adults around.

Books are a means of escape to another world - whether or not it's a fantasy. It's the escape from my present day life that I seek. Not a representation of the life I'm living. It's entertainment. It's opening up of possibilities. It's knowing that what I am living is not the only way to live.

And there are lessons to be learned in every story.

I did object to the content of a book not too long ago as the MC was approached by a man who said he had something for the kid at his house. And the kid went with him and got a magic baseball bat or something. And that helped the kid become accepted by the other kids in the story. Walking off with strange adults who offer gifts is something I can do without in a book.

Kristi Holl said...

Thankfully there are still towns where it's relatively safe to let your child have a normal amount of freedom, and yet be safe. But I do think MG writers have a responsibility in what they portray in novels. I know that's a matter of opinion these days though.

Anonymous said...

I feel so sorry about the lack of independence for growing children today. If I had been caught today roaming the neighborhood as a 4 year old with my 2 year old sister in tow, my mother probably would have been reported to social services! Please allow children to read of this freedom if their helicopter parents won't let them experience being alone in real life. The delight of the Penderwicks is the child centered world of the story. Think of all the fabulous children's books
featuring orphans or motherless children! I don't think any of us need a list.

Kalynne Pudner said...

This is an intriguing question. I don't write for kids, but I have nine of them. So the question that occurs to me is, if the MC is at home texting or IM'ing friends, watching MTV or playing the Wii, where's the plot? Why would a kid want to read a book about what s/he'd be doing on an average day, as opposed to just doing it?

Ironically, three of my girls have just read, with great relish, Clements' A School Story, in which the MC rides the subway and takes the bus alone.

Anonymous said...

Why do we necessarily assume that we must be writing about middle class children with over-protective parents all the time? I frequently see groups of children of nine or younger wandering around the city. The kind of limited freedom we're talking about here seems to me to be the preserve of a particular class or group in society, and there are still plenty of families who do let their children wander unsupervised (however inappropriate the rest of us might think it is).

Chris Eldin said...

This is one of my favorite posts yet.

Last year, I let my younger children wander around a large grocery getting things for me. An elderly female professor witnessed this and said "Do you mind if I share this with my class? The grocery store taking the place of going to the neighborhood candy store."

Times change, but kids wanting freedom from their parents doesn't.

Did I say this was a great post?

Anonymous said...

I thank God every day that my mom had the courage to allow me to be independent and explore the world. As I got older that "world" grew larger and larger. As a parent I can now appreciate how very hard that must have been for her, and if she were her today I would drop to my knees and kiss her feet. I encourage and applaud authors who allow their characters to also explore their worlds.

Anonymous said...

Do authors and publishers ever get sued for the content of children's fiction? Say, a kid in a book does something dangerous or mean and a child reader copies it? I know, this sounds ridiculous but I just wondered, with people so insanely litigious these days.

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