On Writing About Tragedy for Young Readers

I have written two dozen non-fiction history books for kids over as many years. My latest books recount an environmental disaster (The Great American Dustbowl) and a killer hurricane (Drowned City: The Story of Hurricane Katrina), neither of which is an easy topic for readers regardless of age. Tragedy and loss, however, are elemental to these stories. They are at the hearts of the tales and are the very reasons the tragedies have fixed themselves to our historical memory. Being central to the narrative, they can’t be ignored or diminished. Pretending otherwise would be worse than disingenuous…it would be dishonest. Diminishing tragedy’s relevance to readers—any readers, of any age—would also be a terrific mistake. The reader can’t be fooled, not even a young reader. They would see it for the pandering that it is; and no one wants to be patronized to, no matter what their age.

The question I often face is how to present difficult material to kids. First, I remind myself that an adult’s concerns with the profound questions surrounding the meaning of life don’t always square with the interior calculus of a child. And that calculus changes with the age of the reader. I’m inclined to believe younger readers digest a tragedy they encounter in books with a bit more detachment than older readers; they aren’t heartless, just less likely to have experience with it, less likely to make a direct connection between tragedy and themselves. Also, their young lives are a barrage of novel feelings and information whose relative importance is something of an intellectual juggling act: an eight-year-old is likely to ask in the same breath for an explanation of why people die as well as why Neil Patrick Harris is important. (Yes, that’s a true story.)  

On the other hand, thirteen-year-olds have begun sorting the frivolous and the mundane. Perhaps they might have experienced the death of a loved one. Their advancing maturity allows them to project themselves into the tragedy they encounter in a book and be moved or frightened by it in a manner very different from an eight-year-old.

What then to do? I embrace simplicity in the firm belief that readers will process the information in a manner consistent with their individual maturity.

From The Great American Dustbowl:

“It blinded chickens and cattle and choked them to death.” “A boy got lost in the doom. A driver lost the road. Both suffocated.” From Drowned City: “In other attics, people drown.” “Sick people who might have lived, die.” “Outside, swollen dead bodies lie in the streets and float in the water.”

Each declarative sentence is simple without being simplistic, accessible to readers of any age while remaining vivid. The distilled, unadorned descriptions are already freighted with enough heartbreak that adding embellishment would be melodramatic. The sentences don’t place themselves between the reader and the tragedy with emotionally laden adjectives like “awful,” “horrible,” or “terrible.” Instead, they reveal the tragedy and allow the readers to take from it what they are able to digest; the response is self-regulating. And for readers with additional, heightened concerns, the bare-boned descriptions offer a hook on which parents and teachers can hang a greater, more nuanced comment. Ultimately, words and images have the power to invite conversation, spark curiosity, and nurture compassion, and I aim to open up this space for my readers. 

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Don Brown is the award-winning author and illustrator of many picture books, including The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees. He has been widely praised for his resonant storytelling and his delicate watercolor paintings that evoke the excitement, humor, pain, and joy of lives lived with passion. School Library Journal has called him "a current pacesetter who has put the finishing touches on the standards for storyographies." He lives in New York with his family. You can find him online at booksbybrown.com.

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