Hard Topics Can Lead to Good Kids' Books - National Council of Teachers of English
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Hard Topics Can Lead to Good Kids’ Books

This text is excerpted from the article by Adrienne Samuels Gibbs in The Council Chronicle (March 2016.) 

Difficult topics are often difficult sells when it comes to children’s literature, yet two of this year’s NCTE book awards go to works that delve into modern world issues, including racism and government malfeasance.

Heavy stuff for kids? Perhaps. But good literature often mimics real life, say the authors.

DrownedCity_hres“You know no one’s going to complain about Animal Farm and no one’s going to complain about The Great Gatsby, which are also great books, but these are different times and for a different audience,” says Don Brown, illustrator and author of the graphic novel Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, winner of this year’s Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children. Brown’s book provides an accurate, not sugarcoated, accounting of what went wrong when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast—an approach he defends. “God forbid you should [write about] something that a kid would recognize in their own life . . . . I wish there was more of [this.] I don’t think there’s enough [in] children’s literature and there’s certainly room for more.”

Stella by StarlightSharon Draper, author of Stella by Starlight, winner of NCTE’s 2016 Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children, agrees on the value of finding ways to present real-life topics for children.

“One of my books, Copper Sun, is about a 15-year-old girl who lives in Ghana,” says Draper. “I knew when I was writing it that it was not for that younger crowd, and it’s about slavery, so it deals with some very difficult things . . . . The author writes with the sensibility for audience. . . . ”

“All I ever wanted to be was an English teacher,” says Draper. “I did not know I was going to be a writer. I didn’t think about it. If I had thought about it earlier, I would’ve done it 20 years ago. . . .”

Chron-Mar2016-Sharon-Draper-quote-web-5wideWith 25 years of teaching experience under her belt, Draper feels the writer’s life is enhanced by the teacher’s life. She rises at 5 a.m. most days and spends her time at the computer, sketching out stories. Other days, she’s traveling to promote a book or speak at a conference. Yes, she is a mother of four grown children, but she believes her ability to reach children of all ages is rooted in her experiences as a teacher. Somewhere along the line she learned what makes kids tick.

“The reason I write for teens and young people is because that’s who I know, and I kind of understand the essence of a teenager, so I write for them with ease,” Draper says. “Today’s kids are not so very different [just because] everything is on their cell phones. The essence of what it means to be 11 or 14 or 16 does not change. I start with that.”

Draper respects children and wants to know what they have to offer. She also stays in tune with her young readers, and sticks to her policy to respond to their questions.

The NCTE Connection

Teachers have been Draper’s backbone for her entire writing career. She reminisces about attending NCTE’s Annual Convention in the 1990s and selling her first book out of a paper bag, for cash. . . .

“I would say, ‘Hi. I’m an author and I’m a teacher and I wrote this book.’ NCTE and its teachers there have been with me from day one as supporters.”

That’s why the Charlotte Huck Award means so much to her. Yes, the award fetes fiction that has the potential to change children’s lives. But it’s also an honor given by her peers. And no one is more difficult to please than people who know you well.

“I have been a member of NCTE for, I don’t know, 35 years,” says Draper. “It has been such an important part of my life professionally. This award is very significant because it’s like being honored by English teachers—those who understand exactly what it means to teach a book, to read a book, to analyze a book, to understand a book. It means an awful lot to me.”

Don Brown, Author of Drowned City

Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Don Brown wasn’t always a writer. He published his first book in 1992 after unsuccessfully trying to be an editorial cartoonist. . . .

Chron-Mar2016-Don-brown-quote-webA unique combination of his love of comics and history, Brown’s forte is in showing and telling the truth of things. It might sound a bit morbid, but Brown is really good at telling terrible stories. . .

Brown’s goal is to show all sides of the story so that the reader can make informed guesses and ask questions as to why something occurred and what might happen next.

And, adds the father of two grown daughters, that sort of exercise is good for kids.