Kathryn Page Camp
When writing for children, the subject matter must be suitable for the age level. That doesn’t mean you can’t deal with tough issues, but you must do it appropriately.
I’ll use death as an example.
Even the youngest children can be faced with the death of a loved one, so it makes sense to cover the issue in picture books. Some tell a story using animals as characters. Others talk about the death of a pet. Then there are books like Tomie dePaola’s Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, which emphasizes the memories that remain after a boy’s great-grandmother dies. Regardless of the approach, the purpose at this age is always to comfort and never to frighten.
In picture books, the death usually occurs by natural causes, such as sickness or old age. There is no violence.
Although violence is still unusual, middle-grade books treat death differently. Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia is the classic middle-grade novel on the subject. It beings by developing the friendship between the protagonist, Jess, and the new girl, Leslie. We come to love both characters, and when Leslie dies in an accident we cry with Jess over his (and our) loss. But the death takes place off-stage, and Jess learns to live with it. If you want to know more, you’ll have the read the book for yourself.
Bridge to Terabithia doesn’t treat death as gently as picture books do, but it still has a lighter touch than most young adult fiction. In fact, YA books can be quite dark. Two World War II novels by Ruta Sepetys illustrate this.
In between shades of gray, fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother, and her brother are arrested by the Soviets and sent to Siberia. Salt to the Sea follows four young people, three of whom are fleeing through East Prussia to escape the Soviets. Both books contain multiple deaths. Many are onstage, and all result from cruelty. As readers, we never come to terms with those deaths, and that’s how it should be.
As you can see, the age of the audience doesn’t necessarily limit the subject matter, but it does dictate how the writer treats it.
So tread carefully.
Kathryn Camp writes middle-grade fiction as Kaye Page and adult non-fiction as Kathryn Page Camp. Her first middle-grade historical novel, Desert Jewels, will be released later this month. She has written two more middle-grade historicals that are currently circulating to publishers and agents and is developing a new website devoted to her children’s books. In the meantime, you can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.