Writing About Difficult Things

As an author of books for young adults, teens, and children, I struggle with how to write about difficult things. This is a more formal version of the parental challenge of how to talk about things like death, divorce, and racism.


One of the emotionally hardest is divorce. When the important adults in a kid’s life move apart, it’s awfully hard on the kids.


Here’s a laundry list of negative effects researchers report by comparing children whose parents divorced against those whose parents didn’t: Lower grades, increased chance of suicide attempts, more substance abuse, more depression, more fears about dependence. As divorce rates have escalated over the decades, the topic has received a lot of research attention. It’s also become the subject of numerous books for children, tweens, and teens.


I’m writing in part to review one of them: Violet and the Pie of Life by Debra Green. It’s a story of a twelve-year-old dealing with her parents’ breakup. Violet loves math, so the title is a double entendre and she talks (it’s in the first person) about how it’s wrong to focus on ever more lengthy and accurate versions of the number pi instead of using it to learn more about circles. But she does keep making pie charts, some of which are shown as illustrations in the book, which is fun.


At the end, Violet shares her “former pie chart” which just had her friend McKenzie, her Mom, and her Dad in rough thirds. It contrasts with her “current pie chart” which has a smaller slice for Dad (he left), plus new friends added in to fill the missing space. And that, if not in a nutshell then in a pie dish, is a great summary of the plot.


It has a happy ending, though not the one she initially longed for in which she would bring her parents back together. Here’s the last paragraph of the book, from a scene with her mom and friends at the Sunshine Dessert cafe: “I looked around the table, at my mom and my best friends. You can learn a lot about life from pie charts, but you can learn even more from people. The very best kind of pie chart is one filled with people, especially the people who filled up my life right now.”


I did feel all fuzzy and warm by the end after having felt plenty of butterflies in my stomach as I followed the heartaches of Violet’s journey.


One of us authors’ greatest challenges is to put authentic words in the mouths of young protagonists. They don’t talk like us. Sadie, my fifteen-year-old, helps me revise the dialog in my Silent Lee books because of this problem, and I often see it crop up in books that tackle serious topics like parental breakups.


It’s best to purge the results of our well-intentioned desire to lecture our readers, and just let kids be kids on the page. Ms. Green does a pretty good job of that considering the weightiness of her subject, and when Violet’s thoughts seem a bit adult for her age we can chalk it up to her being something of a math-genius-nerd. The story works.


I also want to turn a questioning mind to the conventional wisdom that divorce causes long-term problems. Think about the way this research is framed. Social scientists seek out families with problems and do in-depth interviews and tracking studies on them. And then they report their findings that the children of these families have problems. Does this fit the definition of ‘self-evident, or is it better termed a tautology? Anyway of course they have challenges because they were already in crisis when they entered the study!


A contrary point of view is to say, what would happen if bad family dynamics continued unabated and kids stayed stuck in the middle of it? It’s often the case that the breakup, move-out, or divorce is a turning point making some sort of healing possible. I went through a divorce after marrying young and foolishly, and I have to say it was the best thing I’ve ever done aside from finally marrying someone wonderful. In hindsight, I think of it as a positive step in my and my elder children’s lives.


Google’s dictionary defines healing as, “the process of making or becoming sound or healthy again.” That’s what Violet and the Pie of Life is all about. And, I think, that’s the trick to writing and talking about difficult things with kids. Focus on the healing process, even if it’s a lengthy one.


Bad things happen. So do good things. Unless you’re writing What to do During a Tornado for Dummies, you can assume people will read your book not for real-time instruction but as part of their long-term healing process. So if you must have a dog die in your plot, please do it up front, not on the last page (as happened with one book Eisa brought home from school a couple of years ago; that was a tearful evening…). People have a natural drive toward healing and we authors can help best by telling stories about that. Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon.



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