Now, don’t get any crazy ideas. Before we jump too far into this article, I would like to make note that “adult themes” in this context DOES NOT MEAN sexual themes. As a forewarning, you should probably NEVER include sexual themes in any books intended for kids younger than 12. With that in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about the children’s lit that I particularly enjoy and that has lasting, relevant lessons for kids. I greatly admire the Middle Grade authors who don’t shy away from themes that seem “too dark,” and talk to kids about the real world they live in.
Why should I include adult themes in my children’s books?
Middle Grade readers are incredibly smart and are also growing and learning, trying to process the world around them. By including formative themes like divorce, death, ethical dilemmas, abuse, and other “dark” themes, you can help kids learn through fiction how to cope with those things. Oftentimes, we want to protect our children from the big scary world outside, but it is sometimes better to warn them that these things exist and help them, through fiction, figure out how to tackle them. If a protagonist of the same age is going through similar troubles, this can help adults impart wisdom to the younger generation without a boring lecture.
What kind of themes can I include?
Death: Any kind of death is a great topic to cover, whether it be the death of a pet or the death of a loved one. With this lesson, I think it’s important to stress that the protagonist cannot bring back their loved one from the dead. You want to make sure the protagonist has healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the death and grief, and that if there is a character who is not dealing with it well, that a lesson can be taught there, too. Make sure that the protagonist at this age does not witness the death, or if they do that it is not gruesome. You don’t want to scar the kids, folks.
Prison: Many young kids have relatives that are in prison. It can be enlightening and comforting to some kids if they see that a protagonist that they like also is dealing with the same things. You can be as realistic here as you want. In my books, Braidy’s parents are pretty open (not totally open) with Braidy about what is going on in his household. I wanted to encourage good parenting and transparency with the kids in that book, but not all parents are like that.
Bullying and Violence: Kids are terrible, so it makes sense that a lot of Middle Grade books are about bullying. If you’ve never been bullied (you lucky dog), do research. Make sure to really bring up great ways to deal with bullies and enforce a good support network.
Mental Illness: Kids suffer from it, too. Also, a lot of kids deal with adults who suffer from mental illness. Make it real, depict it how it actually is, and help kids learn how to be compassionate and loving toward people with mental illness, and toward themselves.
Race: If you’re going to write about race, make sure you have a sensitivity editor on deck who is of the group you’re writing about. If you’re not black and you’re writing a black character, having a sensitivity editor can be key. Avoid the common pitfalls of a lot of authors by assuming you know EVERYTHING about the culture you’re writing. It is important that kids of the Middle Grade age learn how to be tolerant and accepting of other races, as well as what to do when they see someone being bullied because of race.
LGBT+: This is a controversial topic for a lot of people, but I’m of the belief that if we want to raise the most loving kids possible, we’re going to teach them about different sexual orientations and gender identities. Some kids are dealing with these kinds of things themselves and would love to have a trans or queer role model to look up to. Neil Patrick Harris does a great job of this kind of inclusion in his work The Magic Misfits, and the goal is to make the representation as normal as possible to prevent kids from feeling alienated.
Religion: Again, another unfortunately relevant topic. I remember an episode of The Proud Family where Penny switched houses with a Muslim student for a day. It was incredibly enlightening and tolerant and wonderful. I wish more media talked about religion because it would prevent religions other than Christianity from being stigmatized in the US. At some point in your reader’s life, they WILL meet someone of a religion that is different from them. If they’re prepared to have intelligent discussions about it, they can learn a lot!
Protesting: A lot of young students are protesting a lot of things right now: teacher’s wages, climate change, and gun violence. This is something that is present in youth’s lives today and may be relevant to include in your work.
Remember, even if you’re not directly writing a book about a kid getting bullied, there are plenty of ways that you can incorporate these lessons and themes into a more fantastical setting. J.K. Rowling talked about eugenics and nationalism by introducing the concept of Muggles, “Mudbloods,” and “Pure Bloods” in Harry Potter. In my Braidy von Althuis books, I include themes like depression, grief, loss, prison, death, bullying, disability, and much, much more. The world is a very colorful place and kids are going to get exposed to these themes one way or another, so I try as best as I can to have my protagonist come from a loving family who can help guide them through these icky situations.
When can I introduce these themes?
The first and most important thing to remember when writing realistic themes into children’s literature is that you really should only begin to include these themes in books that fall into the Middle Grade range. Any kids younger may be a little too young to really comprehend the themes, so even though you can include them and include them gently, it may not be the best time to talk about them. The Middle Grade range is the perfect age to start to introduce these themes. If you’re worried that these kids are still too young, think about everything our youth today has to deal with. School shootings, divorce, abuse… all of these things are a bit too real for most kids, so including them in your work is not going to show them something they don’t know.
That being said, one of the more important things to remember is to ALWAYS have a happy ending. The main goal of including these kinds of themes is to help kids understand the world around them, not depress them. You should always have the hero or heroine be able to solve the very scary real-world problem that they’re dealing with. This will teach your readers that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that if they’re clever enough they can make it through anything.
How can I research writing these issues for kids?
In my personal opinion, the best way to find out is to just TALK TO KIDS. Find a kid that is the same age as your protagonist (or as close as you can get) and ask them about these issues. Many 10 – 12-year-olds are on social media and know all about Parkland, gay pride, and race. Be sure to get permission from their parents first! You’d be surprised what kids know. That’s why I love writing for them!
I love writing these kinds of stories for kids. I was a huge fan of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events because he treated the Beaudelaires like rational adults. If you give kids the respect of remembering that they’re incredibly smart, you can write great kid’s lit. Kids are so compassionate, wise, and wonderful, and it breaks my heart when they have to go through terrible things. The only thing we can do as older folks is impart the knowledge the best way I think we can, which is through storytelling.
Which authors do you think handle tough children’s subjects the best? Neil Gaiman and Neil Patrick Harris are my favorites so far! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and happy writing!