In an editorial several years ago, I described a tree house in the backyard of a local restaurant. I wrote, “The entire structure has been pieced together from recycled lumber, much of which still bears the paint, logos or posters of the original walls from whence it came. The generous platform is ringed by a sturdy fence that includes branches of the tree itself, random two-by-fours, wooden signs, and even a pair of moose antlers. The ‘house’ is more of a lean-to, tall enough for kids (but not adults) to stand up inside, with a screened door and two screened windows positioned so occupants can easily spy on the diners below or out over the adjacent parking lot. A green padded bench that looks like it had once belonged in a diner adequately furnishes the space. Underneath the tree house hangs a rope swing, from which kids can fling themselves into a thick layer of hay on the grass.”
Fast forward to this summer. The restaurant revamped their backyard, including the tree house. The railing now consists of uniform boards about three inches apart. The house is reached not by a ladder and trapdoor, but via a bona fide staircase. The screen door is gone, the windows are covered in glass, and several of the tree’s branches have been pruned back to discourage climbing. But the worst part, according to my 10-year-old, is that the rope swing has disappeared. Matthew declared the whole structure “boring.” In today’s world, kids have far less freedom than in previous generations. Their lives are more controlledñsometimes because of parents’ fears of an increasingly dangerous society, but often because we’ve somehow come to believe that to grow into successful adults, children’s activities must be channeled, scheduled and programmed from infancy.
Danger comes in many forms, from a stranger encountered on the way to school (who may be a neighbor out walking his dog, but you never know), to free time not filled with “enriching” activities. But, in my opinion, kids need a little danger in their lives. They need to test their boundaries, to learn how to climb a ladder and squeeze through a trapdoor. They need to hurl themselves into a pile of hay and learn it’s best not to land on your face. If grown-ups clean up their world too much, kids will never learn how to push themselves. They’ll never have the satisfaction of trying things that are a little scary, a little off their parents’ radar, and accomplishing something that belongs just to them.
One of the few places kids can still push their limits is with books. It’s possible to step outside your safe life with a story, or try new ideas on for size. But many adults want to clean up their kids’ reading choices as well. I know parents who abhor Barbara Park’s perennially popular Junie B. Jones chapter books because the spirited Junie isn’t a good role model, or won’t read Winnie the Pooh because Christopher Robin can’t spell very well. I also know a lot of authors who are afraid to write books that are slightly subversive because they worry editors won’t publish them. But for every parent who insists on only “safe” reading for their child (and it’s every parent’s right to do so), there are at least two parents who believe it’s okay for kids to wade into the danger zone through fiction. I’m not advocating murder mysteries for preschoolers here, just books that might be considered slightly uncivilized, or more entertaining than educational. Let’s look at some popular examples:
When I first saw Walter, the Farting Dog by William Kozwinkle and Glenn Murray, illustrated by Audrey Colman (a picture book whose plot needs no explanation), I was worried that children’s publishing might be sinking a little too low. But as it started winning awards and spawning sequels, I changed my opinion. Let’s face it: farting makes kids laugh. And if your child finds this book hysterical, you should be glad. In order to get the joke, kids need to know that noisy bodily functions are considered impolite. Laughing about them is one of the perks of childhood. Don’t worry, they’ll outgrow it.
A picture book coming out this December that’s already creating a buzz is 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. The heroine utters such statements as “I had an idea to staple my brotherís hair to his pillow. I am not allowed to use the stapler anymore.” She also glues her brother’s bunny slippers to the floor, and shows Joey Whipple her underpants. Both big No’s. This ingenious story should satisfy two camps of parents; those who want kids to see consequences for inappropriate behavior, and those who don’t mind letting their kids live vicariously through a curious, mischievous character. A pop-up book due out later this month from three publishing powerhousesñMaurice Sendak, Arthur Yorinks and Matthew Reinhartñlets young children face the monsters hiding in their closets and come out on top. In Mommy?, a young boy wanders into a haunted house looking for his mother and encounters creatures like a goblin, a mummy, and Frankenstein. Instead of running scared, the boy pulls pranks on each monster, deflating their power and showing how humor conquers fear every time.
Speaking of scary, if you haven’t read any of the enormously popular Series of Unfortunate Events middle grade novels by Lemony Snicket, do so. With titles like The Bad Beginning, The Miserable Mill, and The Penultimate Peril, and cautions from the author such as, ìIf you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book,î these are clearly stories where adults dare not tread. But children brave enough to venture between the covers will find hilarious plots full of nail-biting twists. The intelligent Baudelaire orphans have unusual skills (Violet for inventing, Klaus for reading and researching, and baby Sunny for biting) that make them admirable heroes.
Lauren Myracle enters the private world of teen girl talk in her young adult novels TTYL and TTFN. The titles alone might raise some parents’ suspicions because unless they’re well-versed at IM (instant messaging), they won’t know what the abbreviations stand for. In fact, the entire novels consist of conversations between three high school girls written in emails, text-messaging and IM’s, using the standard computer shorthand that includes abbreviated spelling and quirky syntax. If you’re not an IMer yourself, you’ll find the books somewhat difficult to read. But you and I aren’t the target audience here. And though the format might keep adults from examining the books too closely, the plots are standard upper young adult fareñrelationships, family trauma, peer pressure, even drugs and alcoholñhandled in a believable manner that conveys growth of character by the end of each story.
As an author, if you’re inspired to delve into the slightly dangerous, dark or subversive corners of childhood with your books, feel free to do so. Don’t limit yourself to all that’s bright, safe and up to code. Allow kids places where they can wander away from their parents’ watchful eyes and have an adventure. If the adventure’s in a book, they’ll always come home safe and sound. And if you’re still not convinced, consider this: In the backyard of the restaurant, the tree house now sits empty. But the books I’ve described above are flying off the shelves.
This article excerpted from Children’s Book Insider, The Newsletter for Children’s Writers. More information at http://write4kids.com