Why I Love Books for Children and Teens: The Whole Story

By request, below is the nearly-complete text of the speech I gave last weekend as International Guest of Honour at Continuum 11, a fantasy/SF and pop culture convention in Melbourne, Australia.

by R.J. Anderson

Over the last couple of years at Continuum you’ve heard challenging, thought-provoking speeches from respected fantasy authors like N.K. Jemisin and Jim Hines. So what, besides the novelty of being Canadian, do I have to offer you? And given that I to write for older children and teens, what can I say to an audience that consists largely of adults?

I think I have a good answer for that, even if you consider yourself too old for the kinds of books I write. But before I get into it, let me tell you how I became a fantasy author.

The Door(s) in the Imaginative Hedge

My father was a full-time Bible teacher in a quite conservative – some would even say old-fashioned – church, which might make you think he’d disapprove of fiction in general and fantasy in particular. Certainly I can’t recall ever seeing him read anything but the Bible or books of theology for pleasure. But whatever choices my father made for himself, he didn’t force them on his children. In fact, he was the one who taught us to love fantasy and science fiction.

One of my earliest memories is of listening to my father read Narnia and The Lord of the Rings aloud to my three older brothers, and I will never forget that night in 1977 when he took us all to see Star Wars — which was unusual, as he almost never went to the theatre. But for some reason he made an exception in this case, and I loved him for it.

I was cruelly bullied at school, and as the only girl in the family, I seldom had anyone to play with. So books became my refuge. Over the next few years I devoured every book of fairy tales and myths my local library had to offer, then moved on to the so-called “juvenile” fantasy and science fiction novels of Andre Norton, Ursula LeGuin, Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper. My father also slipped books into my stocking every Christmas, including some I might never have found otherwise, like George MacDonald’s Curdie books and Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter. I loved them all.

My older brothers, meanwhile, were reading Stephen King, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Stephen R. Donaldson, and amassing a huge collection of lovingly bagged and boxed Marvel Comics. Eventually they opened their own comic book store, where I spent many a happy hour reading all the latest releases without having to pay for them. (To all those collectors who thought they were buying the new issues of X-Men or New Mutants in mint condition – sorry.)

Farther Up and Farther In

But by the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I started to feel like I’d outgrown children’s books, if only because I’d already read all the good ones I could find. And at the time, the only books marketed for teenagers were “problem novels” – contemporary stories about girls getting pregnant or boys doing drugs, which really didn’t interest me at all. So the obvious solution was to read adult books instead.

Happily, I soon discovered the spinning rack of science fiction paperbacks in my high school library, and set out to Read All The Things. This yielded mixed and sometimes disturbing results, but it also led me to authors like Douglas Adams, Robin McKinley, David Eddings, and especially Patricia A. McKillip, whose Riddle-Master trilogy was one of my biggest formative influences as a writer.

So from my mid-teens to my early twenties I read mostly adult fantasy and science fiction, along with a few mysteries, historicals, and literary classics. Even though I’d known since I was twelve years old that I wanted to become a writer, I never seriously considered writing for children – I thought my ideas were too big, and the emotional content of my stories too mature, to fit into one of those slim little volumes. I wanted to write something epic, complex, even dark in places, and surely only adults would be interested in that.

The Wanderer’s Return

But then came Harry Potter, followed not long after by Twilight, and publishers discovered that there was gold in them thar hills. Soon bookstores which had previously only stocked a few award-winning, “worthy” children’s books about farming droughts and dead dogs were filling their shelves with tales of sly thieves, dragon-defying princesses and magical worlds in peril – the kinds of stories I loved.

So as a married woman in my thirties, I went back to reading children’s and young adult fiction for a while, originally because an editor friend had suggested my book Knife might be a good fit for that market, and I wanted to know if she was right. But I found the newer children’s books so refreshing that before long I was reading middle grade and YA almost exclusively. I was delighted when Knife sold to a children’s publisher, with surprisingly few changes to the content that had once made me think of it as adult. And eight years later, I’m still writing for a younger audience.

Why do I love books for children and teens?

There are many reasons I love writing and reading stories for younger readers, but today I’m going to tell you just three.

First, because younger readers are the most passionate and loyal audience any author could wish for. I don’t think anyone ever loves stories more than readers between the ages of eight and fifteen. And not only do kids of that age read lots of books, but when they find one they really like they read it again and again. They tell all their friends about it. They write fan fiction and draw fan art and dress up as their favorite characters and make trailers for the book on YouTube. Sure, kids read a lot of bland commercial garbage that will embarrass them later on. But they are also discovering the books that will be in their library, and their children’s libraries, for life.

Kids are also smart readers. They pay attention to little details, and they’re always asking questions as they read. They enjoy puzzles, which is why so many kids like the Sherlock Holmes stories even though there are no children in them. Unlike adults, who sometimes read books out of duty or in order to impress other adults, kids see no reason to stick with books that don’t engage them, so they won’t put up with a lot of filler or self-indulgent maundering. They aren’t impressed that the book was written by a celebrity, or that it’s been well reviewed, or that it’s won X number of awards. All that matters to them is the story. Children’s book editors, at least the good ones, are some of the most ruthless and thorough editors in the world for just that reason. Because children and teens are highly critical and opinionated readers, and if you disappoint them, you will never hear the end of it.

Let me share with you one of my favorite quotes from Ursula LeGuin, from an essay published in 1979:

“Sure, it’s simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up.  All you do is take the sex out, and use short little words, and little dumb ideas, and don’t be scary, and be sure there’s a happy ending. Right? … If you do all that, you might even write Jonathan Livingston Seagull and make twenty billion dollars and have every adult in America reading your book!

But you won’t have every kid in America reading your book. They will look at it, and they will see straight through it, with their clear, cold, beady little eyes, and they will put it down, and they will go away. Kids will devour vast amounts of garbage (and it is good for them) but they are not like adults: they have not yet learned to eat plastic.”

Girls Very Much Allowed

Another reason I love children’s fantasy is that it makes room for girls and women, and not just in stereotypical roles. Having grown up reading about smart, resourceful female characters like Eowyn and Aravis and Jill Pole and Menolly, I found a lot of adult epic fantasy really frustrating. I know that’s changed over the past few years and I’m glad of it, but there are still too many books that treat women chiefly as attractive furniture, or stepping stones for the hero’s psychological and sexual development.

The girls and women in children’s books, however, tend to be far more diverse and interesting. There we meet angry, awkward, unattractive girls, like Meg Murry in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. We find not only kind-hearted Moominmamma and the sentimental Snork Maiden, but also the bluntly pragmatic Too-Ticky and the fearless, tough Little My. (As an aside, if you haven’t read Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, you need to get on that, because she’s brilliant.)

There are still some stereotypes, of course, especially once you get into teen literature where sexuality comes into play. But for the most part, children’s books treat female characters not as props, but as people – and they’re also more likely to be at the forefront of the story.

The Heart of the Matter

But to me the most important feature of fantastic stories for children, whether they take place in some quasi-medieval kingdom or a bleak dystopia or a galaxy far, far away, is the presence of hope.

I’ve heard it said – and unfortunately I couldn’t find the exact source, but I believe it came from a children’s book editor at a conference some years ago – that you can take a child reader into dark places, but you must always lead him or her out again. There are certainly bleak and even nihilistic books for young readers – Nothing by Janne Teller, which was nominated for the Printz Award in 2011, is one example. But books so dark that they end without even the slightest glimmer of light are the exception rather than the rule in children’s literature.

This is not to say that books for young readers are all sweetness and light (or should be). Certainly the genre is broad enough to include cheerful adventure romps and bubbly teen romances, just as adult literature has its “beach reads” and comic novels about sports or family life. But more often than not, children’s books take their main characters to some very dark places indeed.

Pollyanna Need Not Apply

And it’s not just the old cliché about the dog dying. In fiction, as in reality, children lose loved ones to illness, murder or suicide; they live through plagues, wars, and terrifying natural disasters; they experience the effects of abuse, trauma, sexual assault, addiction, mental illness, poverty, eating disorders, and every other kind of hardship imaginable. Their sufferings may not be described in graphic detail; they’re often implied rather than stated outright. But anyone who’s read a certain scene in Neal Shusterman’s YA novel Unwind will remember, what isn’t described can be just as horrifying as what is. Good writing doesn’t have to be explicit to be powerful.

In short, there are few problems addressed in adult fiction that are not found in books for kids – the big difference is that it’s kids who grapple with those problems, instead of looking to adult characters to do it. As author Kate Coombs puts it, “The audacious thing about children’s books is that they cast children as heroes and then refuse to spare them from the law of consequences.” Rather than shielding young readers from the unpleasant things in life, good children’s books actually help them to face those harsh realities and prepare to deal with them.

A Spoonful of Moral Medicine

So when I say that children’s books are hopeful, I don’t mean that they’re always sunny and pleasant to read. Nor do I mean that they are, or ought to be, moralizing fables about the importance of a positive attitude. If adults despise glib or preachy fiction, kids despise it even more, so they won’t read authors who talk down to them, or who try to put happy-face bandages on wounds that go far more than skin deep. Still, children’s books can raise big moral and philosophical questions, and leave the reader with much to think about – as in M.T. Anderson’s book Feed, a grimly plausible look at a near-future America where the internet is wired into everyone’s brains and corporations bombard teens with advertising twenty-four hours a day. The outcome is far from uplifting, but at the same time, Feed also invites us to think critically about the world we live in, to examine our priorities, and hold on to what really matters. Even if the only hope the reader has by the end of the story is that our world isn’t quite as far gone as the one M.T. Anderson describes, and that there might yet be time for us to change, it’s still hope.

But there are brighter hopes in stories for children, as well. Not necessarily that everything will work out perfectly and everyone will be happy in the end, but that the terrible things that happen to the characters are not meaningless, not just a succession of pointless miseries with no end but despair. That even though we live in a world full of oppression and injustice, even though people can be ignorant and selfish and cruel to one another, all is not lost. The darkness is real, it is terrible, but it is not the whole of the story.

(Grown-Ups Don’t Get No) Satisfaction

Oddly enough, it’s this very quality of hopefulness that causes some people to despise children’s and young adult fiction as immature and unworthy of adult notice. Around this time last year a journalist named Ruth Graham wrote in an article for Slate Magazine, “YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.”

Leaving aside the absurdity of her claim that teen books don’t allow for ambiguity, which to me only goes to show how few of those books Ms. Graham has read, I think she’s right about one thing; most children’s books do end in a way that is at least partly, if not totally, satisfying. They leave the reader with a sense of purpose, of resolution, or at the very least they tell an actual story – they are more than just literary calisthenics, or a jellied slice of atmosphere. But the same could be said of many, many adult books as well. Including, of course, a lot of adult fantasy and sci-fi.

Yet adult genre fiction does seem to be trending toward nihilism, as the popularity of Game of Thrones and other grimdark fantasies suggests. After years of fantasy epics about the triumph of good over evil, we’ve become jaded and hard to surprise; we’re drawn to the novelty of stories where human decency is more often punished than rewarded, and there’s no guarantee that evil won’t triumph, or that there is any goodness left to oppose it at all.

The Harshness of Reality

We may even be tempted to view stories of this bleak and cynical kind as more realistic than, say, The Lord of the Rings. Human history is full of horrors, after all – rape and slavery and genocide, the brutal subjugation of native peoples, the mistreatment of those with mental and physical disabilities, and all manner of atrocities committed in the name of religious and secular philosophy, from the Crusades to Stalinist Russia and beyond. Only last Saturday, as my husband was driving me to the airport, we heard a news report about the Residential School movement in Canada – an attempt by the Canadian government to force the assimilation of First Nations people by denying them their language, culture, and religious practices and forcibly removing children from their families to be “re-educated”.

From the late 1800’s when the first residential schools opened until the last one closed in 1996, more than 6000 indigenous children in those schools died of neglect, malnutrition and disease. Their parents were never notified, and their bodies were buried in unmarked graves. The shattering impact of this cultural genocide on the aboriginal communities of Canada can hardly be imagined. When such terrible things can go on in a so-called civilized country, surely a book that portrays the world as a rotten, miserable place, and survival as the best we can hope for, is merely reflecting the truth?

Rage, Rage

In our bleaker moments, it’s hard not to think so. I’m reminded of Psalm 88 in the Bible, a desperate cry to a seemingly indifferent God, which ends with the words, “The darkness is my closest friend.” Or to quote Westley in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Grimdark is a very accurate reflection of that frame of mind, and I think it appeals to us for the same reasons that death metal appeals to angry teenagers. When life has kicked you in the teeth, hope seems like the most childish, implausible thing in the world.

Ultimately, though, I believe that narratives full of amoral antiheroes and relentless brutality are no more balanced or realistic than stories full of pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows. Yes, these things have been, and are, part of human experience. But they are not the entirety of it.

Certainly there are days, or weeks, or months, when we feel very much like Tyrion Lannister at his lowest (seriously, has Tyrion ever had a good day?), or Frodo crawling up the slope of Mount Doom. But Tyrion’s seemingly endless and senseless torment is no more realistic than Frodo’s triumphant, though costly, sacrifice. In fact, I think there’s good reason to argue that it’s less so.

Is Grimdark Real?

I’m not saying this to disparage him, much less to glorify warfare, but consider: George R.R. Martin, who has written so much about violence and brutality, has never served in combat. In fact he escaped the Vietnam draft by becoming a conscientious objector, which certainly fits with his view that war is hell, but also means that he has no personal experience of it. Whereas Tolkien, who describes the hideous vapours and blighted landscape of Mordor so vividly, was actually reliving his own experience as a soldier in the trenches of WWI, a battle that killed and maimed over 37 million people and left millions more shattered by the effects of shell-shock, or what we now call PTSD.

If anyone knew the hellishness of war it was Tolkien, which is why he could write so vividly about the physical and emotional torment Frodo experiences on his way to destroy the Ring, and how it haunts him afterward. “I am wounded,” he says near the end of the book, “it will never really heal.” But in the trenches Tolkien also witnessed extraordinary acts of human bravery and compassion, and the powerful friendships that formed between certain officers and enlisted men. Which is why we have not only Frodo but Sam, the most unflaggingly loyal, loving and courageous Hobbit of them all. From a grimdark viewpoint Sam might seem like a naïve fantasy cut from wishful-thinking cloth. But in reality he was based on Tolkien’s firsthand observations during one of the deadliest wars in human history. Sometimes the things that seem too good to be true are truer than we ever imagined.

So which story is more realistic in the end, Martin’s or Tolkien’s? Yes, winter is coming. But spring is coming, too.

The Essential Ingredient

Not every hope is a valid one, of course, either in literature or in life. Hope can be misguided, if we put our faith in the wrong person or the wrong thing; hope can be dashed or deferred, which as King Solomon said “maketh the heart sick,” and sometimes feels worse than never having had any hope at all. Every time we get our hopes up only to be disappointed, it’s easier to despise ourselves for being so naïve, until we harden our hearts and decide, like the dwarves in The Last Battle, that we will never again be “taken in”.

But the absence of hope is deadly, no matter how rational it might seem. And the fruit of hopelessness is not maturity, but suicide.

We may have nothing left to cling to but the sheer fact of our existence, but to quote Solomon again, “Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better than a dead lion.” When we feel eternally trapped in the Black Moment of our own personal story, good fantasy reminds us that the next hour, the next moment, even the next breath, could bring us into what Tolkien called eucatastrophe – the twist in the story that turns despair into joy, or as he put it, “a relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.” There is no guarantee that we will experience that kind of relief. But it is not childish or unrealistic to believe that it could happen.

Faith, Hope and Honesty

As I speak to you today, my father – the voice of Aslan and Gandalf, the man who taught me to love fantasy and inspired me to become a children’s book author – is dying. Not right this moment, of course, or I wouldn’t be here. But I’m reminded more and more frequently that he could die at any time. Over the past six months his Parkinson’s Disease has accelerated, leaving him frail and feeble and making it difficult to breathe and swallow. His mind is clear, but he finds it increasingly hard to articulate his thoughts. His eyesight is fading, his deafness almost complete, and because depression is a feature of Parkinson’s, he no longer enjoys the things that used to give him pleasure and purpose in life – even reading the Bible, which is painful for a man who’s spent over seventy years studying and teaching it. He is unable to dress or bathe himself without assistance, and he’s almost completely housebound. It’s humiliating, demoralizing, and despite my mother’s love and support, acutely lonely.

My father is 90 years old, and he knows that death is coming. But in spite of everything, he has hope. It’s not that he’s detached from the harshness of reality – he served as a radar operator in the Royal Navy during WWII, and though he doesn’t like to talk about it, I know he’s seen men die. Which is probably why, after he took us to see Star Wars, he was so troubled by the sight of all those Stormtroopers being shot down by blaster fire that he never wanted to see it again.

Yet, as I said, my father still holds onto hope – not the hope of a cure in this life, but the hope of something better in the next. And not in some vague, uncertain way, but as a confident expectation. Because his hope is anchored in something bigger than himself, he can look beyond his present circumstances and find the strength to go on.

The Puddleglum Principle

You may not agree with my father, of course; you may feel that his faith is nothing more than self-delusion. And you are certainly free to think so. But I can’t help remembering a certain scene in The Silver Chair, my favorite of all the Narnia books, where the Lady of the Green Kirtle comes perilously close to convincing our heroes, including a certain gloomy Marsh-Wiggle, that they are foolish to believe in the existence of Narnia, or indeed any world except the dark cave they are currently in. And Puddleglum, of all people, says this:

“I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. … Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

If the hopefulness of children’s fantasy is truly unrealistic, and being grown-up means resigning ourselves to a world without goodness or beauty or meaning, it’s no wonder so many people are tempted to give up on life. But I think we can – we must – do better than that.

You Are Not Alone

I have had my own struggles, even recently, with depression and anxiety. Mental illness is real, and the lies it tells are too powerful to be banished with the ray-gun of positive thinking, or the wave of a magic wand. Yet like my father, I believe that even where there is no happiness, there can still be hope. And books that encourage us to see good and not just evil, and to find purpose in life rather than simply enduring it, can be crucial to nourishing that hope in us.

Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. One of the most widely shared quotes from any of my novels, the one that pops up most on places like Instagram and Tumblr, is this passage from my 2011 teen book Ultraviolet:

“I heard the universe as an oratorio sung by a master choir of stars, accompanied by the orchestra of the planets and the percussion of satellites and moons. The aria they performed was a song to break the heart, full of tragic dissonance and deferred hope, and yet somewhere beneath it all was a piercing refrain of glory, glory, glory. And I sensed that not only the grand movements of the cosmos, but everything that had happened in my life, was a part of that song. Even the hurts that seemed most senseless, the mistakes I would have done anything to erase–nothing could make those things good, but good could still come out of them all the same, and in the end the oratorio would be no less beautiful for it. I realized then that even though I was a tiny speck in an infinite cosmos, a blip on the timeline of eternity, I was not without purpose. And as long as I had a part in the music of the spheres, even if it was only a single grace note, I was not worthless. Nor was I alone.”

The Bottom Line

I’m not telling anyone not to read grimdark fantasy or gritty science fiction, or that the hope found in children’s books makes them the only stories worth reading. We need all kinds of books, because there are all kinds of readers. And a story that one person finds depressing and pointless may be the same story that inspires another person to go out and change the world.

So read the books that move you, that make you gasp and rage and weep. Read books that challenge and provoke you, books that remind you to examine your assumptions and check your privilege, books that make you question if what is or could be, should be. That is, after all, what good fantasy and science fiction stories do.

But leave a little room on your bookshelf for hope. Because none of us can live without it.

Thank you.