Almost three years ago, I began writing what would eventually become my first book for middle-grade readers: “Riverland.” I did so despite having sworn to myself long ago that this was the story I would never tell.
Deciding to write this book, in which two sisters navigate a dangerous household and a fantastical dream realm, eventually saving each other and the world, was a matter of waking up one morning and knowing I needed to tell the story after all. However, writing the book became a difficult journey, filled with revision after revision until I got Eleanor and Mike’s story right. That’s because, with “Riverland,” I didn’t want to write an issue book about domestic violence, necessarily. I wanted to write an adventure: one with two sisters as heroes and survivors.
Children’s literature has a long history of engaging tough topics in small and large ways and wrapping them up in adventure. Books as beloved as Katherine Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia,” all the way up through recent stories such as Patrick Ness’s “A Monster Calls” and “Amal, Unbound,” by Aisha Saeed, engage and entertain on many levels while doing important work. For me, and for many readers and the authors who write for them, there isn’t always a divide between issue books and adventure or escape. Often books that fall on the lighter side of “just for fun” literature have a serious point at their core, while many books regularly address tough topics with magic and wonder.
For additional perspectives, I asked fellow fantasy and science fiction children’s literature authors Carlos Hernandez (“Sal and Gabi Break the Universe”) and Rachel Hartman (“Tess of the Road”) to talk with me about the importance of magic and adventure when it comes to tough topics and themes.
We each wrote different types of adventures — navigating a new school after a move and the death of a parent, when you can accidentally alter physics and open wormholes to different universes; traversing a countryside in search of mythical creatures following emotional trauma and sexual assault; falling into a dream river and having to stop it — and the creatures that live on it — from leaking into the real world while avoiding making your dad angry. And we all agreed that the quests offered readers something important: empathy, connection and powerful tools.
“What fiction does best is create a space for readers to gain empathy with others, even if their situations are different,” Hernandez says.
“When readers and characters do share similar situations, fiction can create spaces that are specifically useful. Reading offers children options that might never have occurred to them otherwise, which helps them feel less isolated,” Hartman says. “For children — and adults too — often the only thing worse than going through something difficult is going through it completely alone. The feeling of being seen and understood in fiction is transformative. These kinds of stories are a hand to hold, or a sign saying: Humans have passed this way before. Just that much acknowledgment can be a tremendous help.”
Often such characters and transformative experiences are found amid stories containing adventure, magic, monsters and science. Through characters such as Sal and Gabi, Tess and more (I’ve added a starter list below), young readers swept up in a story may discover ways to see through their own situations to the other side, or to find a fellow traveler for surviving the journey.
Hernandez feels that to be forewarned is to be forearmed. “One of the most fundamental purposes of all languages — I’m thinking here even of animal call systems — is to prepare others to handle dangers they might not themselves perceive.”
For me, that preparation included steering away from traditional movie and television portrayals of children experiencing violence at home. Often those portrayals took agency away from the kids themselves, making them pawns to be rescued or precursors to dark/lost characters. I knew personally that when a violent experience happens but doesn’t look like what the media portrays, some assume it must not be that bad; or worse, that what’s happening is their fault.
In “Riverland,” the situation is more nuanced than what might appear on TV or in the movies. Eleanor and Mike (her real name’s Mary, but everyone calls her Mike) are actively engaged in rescuing themselves and each other. And they often act in ways that promote their own survival in the moment. To outsiders, everything looks fine. That’s part of their survival strategy at first. That was the hardest part to write, and the most important.
It was similar for Hartman. “With ‘Tess,’ I wanted to write a book that would have been useful to me at a certain age, when I felt like I had ruined my life and there was no coming back from it. I don’t think such a book could have prevented me making mistakes — mistakes are so unpredictable and idiosyncratic, and sometimes we really have to learn things the hard way — but it would have given me hope that healing and recovery were possible.”
Writing stories about tough topics isn’t an easy journey. I certainly found writing “Riverland” much like an adventure quest — filled with as many dangers, challenges and monsters. But as I rewrote and revised, I realized that I was making a story that put agency and the power of imagination and dreams back in the hands of the kids themselves. That kept me going. I figured out that my own experiences, when shaped into a different kind of story, could help others see they weren’t broken. Perhaps, if there had been a book like this when I was younger, I wouldn’t have felt alone and so at fault. This didn’t make the work of drafting the book any easier.
“I had to dig deep into my own traumatic memories to make the story as emotionally authentic as possible,” says Hartman. “It turns out that pulling the scabs off old wounds makes them hurt all over again, and this can echo into the rest of your life in some very painful ways. It was worth doing, and I’d do it again, but I’d get the therapist lined up first.”
For Hernandez, the challenges were heart-wrenching. “My own mami died as I was finalizing book one and writing book two, even while my protagonist was dealing with the death of his mami. Oh, when your fiction catches up with your life.”
“My goal with Sal and Gabi,” he continues, “was to externalize my imagination — which I’d argue lies at the heart of human desire. To be known, fully, for who you are, is a dream many people share. Since mine is a Cuban American imagination that’s in love with science fiction and philosophical quandaries, I thought I had a few things I could contribute to our culture’s current, fraught discussions around identity and family." Hernandez says, "Mostly, though, I wanted to talk about how to be a good person when you don’t have all the answers, and when you’re suffering from a loss so great that really, there is no recovery. There is only proceeding on.”
Just like magic shoes, maps and capes that help guide and strengthen characters on a quest, books for young readers that address difficult topics can provide similar support and adventure at the same time. And sometimes, that’s true for the authors who write them as well.
Some book suggestions (generally from younger readers to older):
Each Kindness, Jacqueline Woodson, bullying
Every Shiny Thing, Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison, foster system, autistic sibling
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness, cancer and parental death
New Kid, Jerry Craft, race-related micro- and macro-aggressions, new school
Genesis Begins Again, Alicia D. Williams, internalized racism, verbal abuse
Darius the Great Is Not Okay, Adib Khorram, mental illness, identity, immigration politics
The Prince and the Dressmaker, Jen Wang, love, art, family, fashion
Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya, Mexican American immigrant experience.
Dream Country, Shannon Gibney, African American and African experience
Front Desk, Kelly Yang, Chinese American immigrant experience in California
Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed, indenture, gender inequality, set in Pakistan
Exit, Pursued by a Bear, E.K. Johnston, sexual assault
All the Rage, Courtney Summers, sexual assault
Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been finalists for three Nebula awards, two Hugo awards and a World Fantasy Award. They include her middle-grade debut, “Riverland,” her Andre Norton- and Compton Crook-winning debut novel, “Updraft,” and its sequels, “Cloudbound” and “Horizon.” You can find her at franwilde.net.
Carlos Hernandez’s most recent work is the middle-grade novel “Sal and Gabi Break the Universe.” He teaches in CUNY, is a game designer and enthusiast, and lives in Queens. @writeteachplay
Rachel Hartman is the author of “Seraphina, Shadow Scale” and most recently “Tess of the Road.” She lives with her family in Vancouver. @_rachelhartman.