There are books for young people that hold difficult truths, and we gatekeepers — writers, parents, teachers, librarians — often find ourselves trying to sort out just what is appropriate for our kids to read about. When I was writing and illustrating “Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction,” a graphic memoir aimed at readers 12 and up, I didn’t pull any punches because of one simple realization: There are difficult truths in our books because there are difficult truths in children’s lives.
For me to write this harrowing tale of my upbringing, I needed to write openly and authentically so young people dealing with similar situations would feel less alone. This included some tough scenes about my mother’s opioid addiction and some less tough scenes involving my grandmother’s salty language. To offer up a watered-down account of how addiction affected me as a young person would have been disingenuous. There are, according to the two recent National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 8.7 million children ages 17 or younger in the United States who live in a household where at least one parent has a substance-use disorder — involving drugs, alcohol or both. Those young people deserve to be seen.
I told my story from the perspective of my 17-year-old self because that is an incredibly interesting time for a person — that moment you’re about to be launched into the world on your own, just as you’re trying to sort out who you are. There are some facts that I learned about my mother in my adult life that I didn’t give to my teenage narrator — not because it would have upset the reader but because it would have dramatically altered the narrator’s relationship with his mother, thereby steering the memoir away from actual events.
One story I share is a scene in which my mother aided in covering up a murder her then-boyfriend committed. I was just a toddler at the time. For the book, I needed to explain to the reader why the mother was going away even if I didn’t give that knowledge to the narrator. My grandparents never gave me that information when I was a youth, but it slipped out from a family friend when I was an adult.
As the publication of “Hey, Kiddo” approached, I needed to face a conundrum similar to one my grandparents had faced as they raised me — when (and if) to tell my children the truth behind their familial lineage. Before I let my nine-year-old daughter read “Hey, Kiddo,” I sat her down to tell her about some of the details I reveal in the book. She’d known about my mother’s incarceration and drug use, but she’d never known the woman herself or any of the details. (My mother started getting arrested again when my eldest was in preschool and died of an overdose a few years after that.) I built up the courage to have this conversation and learned something very important: that I hadn’t been giving my kid enough credit.
After I told the tale of my mother’s abusive boyfriend and how my mother had helped dispose of the bloodied murder weapon, my daughter was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “Maybe she was afraid that she’d get murdered if she didn’t help. Or what if she was afraid that man would hurt you when you were little?” Her empathy in the face of such a disturbing revelation blew me away — and reinforced my belief that kids can process difficult truths if they’re given the right context and room to think about them.
My mother was just 13 when she started experimenting with drugs — only one year older than the earliest suggested age for readers of “Hey, Kiddo.” While my book may help the children of addicts feel less alone, I hope, too, that my mother’s story will help young people steer away from the devastating effect of opioids.
It certainly isn’t up to me to tell parents what their child should and shouldn’t read, but I do know this: There are some very difficult and inconvenient topics our children are going to face in real life. I so hope that our young people can experience and learn about these difficult truths for the first time on the page and not in real life. The windows that books provide may give them warning and steer them in a positive direction.
Jarrett J. Krosoczka is the author and illustrator of numerous children’s books, including the Lunch Lady and the Platypus Police Squad series. His most recent book is “Hey, Kiddo.”