Tackling Tough Topics

A writer’s job is to capture what it means to be human. We struggle to make sense of life’s challenges. We explore our own failings and strengths. And we search for meaning through the glorious lens of story.

The human experience is complex—and often painful. But even the most difficult subjects must be given a voice. We, as writers, must determine what stories we’re meant to tell. What stories we’re ready to tell at different moments in our lives.

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The death of a parent, for example, is not a topic I ever expected to write about. Children’s literature is full of orphaned children, so I vowed that I would go out of my way to avoid this common trope. When I first started working on Mothman’s Curse, I tried for weeks to write both parents into the story. But no matter what I did, the mother’s character would not take shape on the page.

So I wrote her out. In her place, I added a supportive aunt and uncle. Suddenly the narrative came alive for me. I had recently lost my own mother, so I was able to draw on those experiences to enrich the characters’ actions, decisions, and emotions. The main character, Josie, gained new purpose and meaning in her own story. She had to face what it meant to be the oldest child, trying to keep her family safe and together without the presence of her mom.

A sensitive topic alone does not a story make. Readers sense when an author is attempting to teach a lesson or manipulate emotion. The best stories stand on their own, painstakingly plotted, lovingly crafted, populated with characters who are flawed but always worth rooting for.

It’s not always easy to make our characters suffer. They become alive in our imaginations, and their struggles can hit too close to home. But there is no growth without struggle, no redemption without failure.

The Shawshank Redemption is a favorite movie in our house. Such a powerful story! Even though we watch the edited version on TV, it’s still a brutal, visceral experience for me to witness the main character, Andy, as he is wrongfully imprisoned, suffering indignity and injustice for so many years. Yet he never loses his identity or his sense of hope, and his eventual freedom is all the more satisfying when finally earned.

Because I write for children—middle grade, specifically—there are certain subjects I will likely never tackle. But kids are not immune from pain, sadness, and injustice. Far from it. Books provide an accessible way for them to work through life’s toughest problems without fear of judgment. Books serve as refuge, escape, comfort, and companion. They are a source of light and truth.

Writers don’t have all the answers. Of course we don’t. We’re all trying to find our place in a confusing, complicated world. Still, we can show readers young and old that we all experience heartache and disappointment, but also love and joy.

To echo Elaine’s beautiful sentiment from Saturday’s post: We can remind each other that we are not alone.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

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