We think of children as living in a state of innocence. For the most part, they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re shielded from awareness about controversial topics in the world. If you want to address these controversial topics in your book, you can do it by respecting children’s intelligence without giving them more than they can handle emotionally.
These controversial topics might include:
- Racism and bigotry
- Domestic violence
- Gun violence
- Mental illness
- Physical disability
- Sexual identity
- Substance abuse
Make sure the material you write is appropriate for your target audience’s age group. Explicit, violent, or disturbing controversial topics may be fine for a young adult reader but not a primary reader. If you’re writing for young children, focus on simple language. Use characters who are also young children, or follow the classic children’s book approach of using animals as stand-ins for people.
Writing for an older reading audience will give you more leeway in terms of language. You can create naturalistic characters that your teen readers will identify with. These readers can handle more explicit language and scenes for controversial topics, but remember, they are still not adults.
Be Upfront and Honest
If you feel strongly about particular controversial topics, you should be honest about your intentions. When you write for children, express that viewpoint clearly. Children and young adult readers value authenticity. They are eager to learn more about the world and themselves, and they are receptive to new ideas.
You may even find that you’re preaching to the choir when it comes to certain controversial topics. Many teens and even younger readers may already have experience with violence, poverty, homelessness, death, and natural disasters.
Be Ready for Pushback
When you write about controversial topics for children, be prepared for strong reactions—positive and negative.
Parent groups, churches, and political organizations have become very vocal in their opposition to certain controversial topics showing up in their children’s reading materials. In some cases, these parents and others think the books are too sexually explicit for children. In others, the controversial topics alone has raised concerns.
The book Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice tells the story of two friends who learn that someone in their town was shot by a police officer. Written by psychologists Marietta Collins, Ann Hazzard, and Marianne Celano, the book received positive feedback from educators but also made the American Library Association’s Most Challenged Books List of 2022.
Many classic books were challenged once
In 1958, famed children’s book illustrator Garth Williams—known for his work on Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little—published his own children’s book, The Rabbit’s Wedding. Although it is a sweet, lovely story that is still in print, the book caused an outrage because it shows a wedding between a black rabbit and a white one. Some people thought Williams was using the book to promote interracial marriage, and they opposed the idea. The book’s publisher refused public pressure to change the colors of the rabbits. Few people today would even think that the book meant to portray an interracial marriage, and neither would most children.
The classic children’s book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, has been regularly challenged and even banned since its publication in 1962. The reason for this is a scene in which Jesus, Gandhi, Einstein, and Buddha are shown as leaders who fight the darkness and evil of the Black Thing. Christians objected to the idea that Gandhi, Einstein, and Buddha should be considered the equals of Jesus. In recent years, however, Christians have embraced the book’s fundamentally pro-religious themes.
How to respond to challenges to controversial topics
There is nothing wrong with parents and other groups challenging what you write. It’s their right, and it’s what you can expect if you put your name out in public view and attach it to controversial topics.
What is the best approach for controversial topics? You can allow your book to stand on its merits, or you can engage in a good faith effort to talk openly with the people who oppose it.
Use Metaphor and Analogy
If you’re writing for younger children, you don’t have to be blunt in your approach. For these readers, it may be better to approach controversial topics through symbolism or metaphor.
The bestselling children’s book Noticing by Kobi Yamada is an example of a book that uses metaphor to impart an important message. It follows the adventures of a girl and a painter as they look for beauty in everyday life. Using the metaphors of nature, the book teaches children to look inside themselves for inspiration.
The 2005 book And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson, relates the story of two male penguins who long to have a family. They are “a little different,” but they want a loving family. It finally arrives in the shape of a little penguin named Tango who becomes the only penguin “with two daddies.”
Use indirect language for controversial topics
You can use metaphor to handle controversial topics that seem too difficult to confront directly. Two good examples are Gentle Willow: A Story for Children about Dying, and Little Tree: A Story for Children with Serious Medical Problems. Both books by Joyce C. Mills tackle difficult controversial topics that many people are at a loss to express to children through the experiences of a squirrel named Amanda.
In Gentle Willow, Amanda learns that her friend, a willow tree, is losing her leaves and will not return in the spring. In Little Tree, Amanda and the other forest animals help Little Tree cope with the loss of her branches. Both books stay away from using the words death, illness, or disability, but they convey a message of acceptance in sensitive language and stories that children will instinctively understand.
The uplifting book Tibby Tried It, by Sharon and Ernie Useman, is aimed at children with physical disabilities. It tells the story of a bird with a crooked wing who cannot fly. Tibby finds other ways to travel around the forest, where other animals teach him to hop, climb, and slide.
Metaphor is an important tool when you’re dealing with difficult or controversial topics. If it’s appropriate for your story, find a way to use it.
Keep It Positive
As much as possible, keep the tone of your book positive. Even if you’re dealing with serious issues like abuse and grief, try to focus on ways that your character is dealing with the problem in a positive manner.
You never want to leave your young readers with a bleak, hopeless ending. That may be fine for adult fiction, but children need more emotional security. Your ending doesn’t have to be happy, but the reader should feel that the character has learned and grown from the experience they had. Your main characters should have hope of a better future at the book’s end.
At the same time, don’t feel you have to sugarcoat everything for children. Most children and young adult readers have already experienced loss, grief, or even worse things. They know the world isn’t perfect.
In a blog post, children’s book author Kim Ventrella notes that she often writes about difficult topics in her young adult novels. She writes that it’s important to let children know that stories and storytelling can help them make sense of a difficult world.
It’s the same reason why people gathered around campfires for centuries telling scary stories. The goal was not to give the listener nightmares, but to take power away from the monsters by putting them into narratives that we control. To show stories of bravery and love, fear and tragic loss, so that listeners can live these epic journeys and come away stronger, or wiser, or more empathetic than when they started.
Offer an Opposing Viewpoint
If you’re writing about a topic that’s hotly contested, it might be helpful to add a viewpoint from the opposing side. That might be difficult if it’s a topic you feel strongly about, but exploring why people feel differently will add a deeper element to your book and allow readers to consider all sides of an issue.
Face Your Fears
You don’t have to shy away from writing about controversial topics for children. Many writers have done so and lived to tell the tale.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading this guide. Dazzle Printing works with many children’s book writers who write about varied topics. When you’re ready to publish your children’s book, talk to us.