Where do ideas come from?

In public, I get asked this question a lot: “Where do you get your ideas?” For the longest time I would answer “whatever makes me laugh,” but to be honest, I never truly knew. Until yesterday that is…

After having a deeply emotional day, I started looking for something to do with all of that emotion. As an aside, I firmly believe that emotion has to be expressed and dealt with, otherwise bad stuff starts happening in our body, mind, and soul.

I had been stuck coming up with another story for the “Nuts” family to go through, so in my sadness and frustration I linked the two problems together and asked this question: what would Wally do with this emotion? (Wally being the eight-year-old squirrel at the center of “Nuts”.) Just like magic, the story started to manifest.

So to answer the question of where stories come from, the reality is that, like so many other things in our lives, stories come from emotion. That problem of what to do with our emotions, how to express them, why anyone cares, is the basis for every writer that put pen to paper- even if they don’t consciously know the reason they are driven to write.

Now I have a question for you: How are you using your emotion?

“Nuts” volume 2 will be out next month, but if you can’t wait, you can check out the original by clicking here.

Standing Up For Yourself

Right now I’m shaking, physically trembling, not because I am about to do something but because of something I have already done. I stood up for myself. Do you know this feeling?

Let me provide a little more context, book sales have not been doing well as of late and I don’t know where to lay the blame for that. Mostly, I blame myself because I am the shepherd of it, however, my time has also been taken by another project- or should I say, person.

Somehow, in my desperation for additional income, I got roped into working for and with a vampire. I have been taken advantage of, willingly I might add because this person exploited a weakness in my personality. He knew that above all else I wanted to please people. I wanted him to like me and to reward my effort and convinced myself that in time, despite all of the warning signs, I would be rewarded. I realized though that I was wrong. I was being taken advantage of, and I decided to put an end to it.

Stop me if this sounds familiar.

As I’m writing this, the person in question is repeatedly calling me. I have sent every call to voicemail. He is not upset that I am leaving, he is upset that I took away his free meal. The great challenge in ending a bad relationship is that the relationship should never have happened in the first place. When one party changes, the other is suddenly offended that what they thought they had is no more. At no point does the shark realize that the tuna didn’t want to get eaten.

I’m sharing all of this with you because it’s an example that bullying, the kind that we attest to ending in childhood, is rampant in adult life. Physical abuse is rather easy to detect and stop, as friends will always step in, but what of the abuse that happens in your own mind? How do you ask for help when your complaint is that you are doing work, voluntarily no less, without compensation? If you are like most people in my life during this time, you would have scolded me that I deserved better. The strange truth was that I knew.

Here’s the thing about our culture: we are far too quick to blame the victim. Victims are victims for a reason. Had they the foreknowledge to fight then the incidents wouldn’t have ever happened in the first place. Why reprimand those brave enough to try to change? Unfortunately, though, this story is all too common. We have come to celebrate the exploiter and admonish the exploited.

You too are probably in a similar situation. Maybe someone is stealing from you, stealing your time, stealing your money. Perhaps there is someone taking emotional advantage of you, of your kindness, that needs to be set straight. Perhaps you are even in the most insidious situation of them all and someone is stealing your love. The only thing that all of these situations have in common is the lack of self-respect for the victim, by the victim.

Fortunately for us, we are only victims so long as we choose to remain victims.

So don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. You know the truth and you have to honor it, even if that means upsetting the apple cart. Besides, apple carts were made to fall over. They can easily be righted and the apples replaced. To get biblical for a moment, we were called to serve, not to slave.

Hopefully, soon you will be shaking as well. Not because you are scared, but because you’re no longer afraid. Just know that the feeling will pass.

You’re ok where you are

I wanted to do something a little different this week and talk about a subject almost completely unrelated to my books… almost. So let me know what you think of this and if you found it helpful. After all, I’m here for you.

Lately, I have wanted change in my life. Like most people, this year so far has been enormously busy and stressful. I’m not sure the why, perhaps it’s something in the air, but everyone I know seemed driven by an invisible taskmaster that demanded nothing short of everything they had.

Unfortunately, that kind of effort can’t last. Humans are not machines, we are organic and need rest. That’s a good thing though because while people can perform functions like a machine, machines cannot create like humans can. They simply repeat patterns. For the last few decades, we as a society have been attempting to become like our computers. You know the feeling, right? Someone sends you an email and then immediately texts that they sent you an email. If you delay in any way they will call you, just to be sure. That’s a person’s expectation that you are to respond like a program; instant and obedient.

When we break away from this, when we finally say that we need rest, there’s a sense that lingers that something is supposed to happen. It’s like when you run for a mile and then suddenly stop: your legs will still want to move and will tingle to tell you so. When we stop working like crazy and push back against the world there’s a sense that we shouldn’t have, that we needed to keep going, that we needed to make sure things get better.

We’re always wrong.

I’ve met very few people in life who ended up exactly where they wanted to go. For the majority of us, we all started out one way and somehow found ourselves somewhere that we never expected. For me, it was writing children’s books. And, notwithstanding death and disease, most of us are ok.

And that’s my point in all of this. We are ok. We are ok where we are and we will be ok where we are going. The big challenge in the modern world, especially in the go-getter attitude of America, is to simply be present in the day. Today is just a day like every other day that has had the same name. You conquered those days perfectly fine and you will get through this day just as well.

We are exactly where we need to be, where we should be, and it’s our job to find the humanity, the personal connection, in that moment.

Everything else is like email. Brief, sometimes interesting, and ultimately fleeting.

What About Story? A Conversation With Jean Lee

A few weeks ago, Jean Lee and I started a conversation about storytelling and its purpose in our lives. While it began as a debate, the viewpoints that we shared had more similarities than differences. Note that “AJ” signifies my replies and “JL” marks when Jean is speaking. My sincerest thanks to Jean for coming up with this idea.


  1. What purpose do you think stories have?

JL- For some reason this question takes me back to all those years of Bible class, where if one didn’t know the answer, one could just say “God” and somehow be right, however tangential a manner.

At the most basic level, stories help us grow.

They send us shivering to bed with cautionary tales of witches haunting the yard. They teach us to cope with loss, be it a pet, friend, or family member. They test our understanding of how the world works. They free us of the reality’s constraints and let us loose in realms both fantastic and boundless.

Stories provide that which we do not always have in our realities: Camaraderie. Understanding. Hope.

A dream.

AJ- I have to agree with most of this. I see stories as stemming from two things: 1) it’s an outgrowth of human language and 2) it’s a consequence of the uniquely human ability of imagination. Stories aren’t just lessons that we tell each other, they are proposals for life. We tell them not just to warn of what is there but to ponder what could be.

2.  With all the entertainment out there, why do you think reading is important?

JL- No other entertainment truly involves the kid like a book. I see it with my kids more than anything. My son Biff (age 4) can sit and stare at books for ages. He can read quite a few, but he mainly does it for the pictures: he’ll make the characters talk and go on adventures all his own. He doesn’t need the television to make all the adventures for him; books give him the tools to create his own. My daughter Blondie (age 6) devolves into a couch potato whenever she plays computer games or watches a show. Yes, we keep it pretty limited to educational stuff, but that’s still not the same as a book, where the senses depend on language to create. When Blondie reads, she’s speaking the words out loud, listening to herself say them, and in that, taking them all in. Her fingers run along every line of the page. She must study each word in order to say it correctly. The more she reads, the more story involves her, and therefore, the more Blondie utilizes her skills and senses.

AJ- I had a conversation with a child once at a school about Minecraft. He asked why I didn’t play it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft, but no matter what I create in that world I am still playing within the confines of someone else’s creation (plus most people simply won’t care about what you make in the game.) Video games and films present reality, basically saying “here it is, interact with it” while books collaborate with your imagination asking “what do you think this person looks like? What’s the scary thing in the dark doing?” This exercises imagination which in turn prepares us to actually contribute to reality. I like to say to kids that I much prefer to make my own Minecraft rather than live inside of Notch’s (the creator of Minecraft.)

3.  Should a book be literal in its meaning?

JL- Ah, here’s a dicey question. I suppose I should pick a side, yes?

Then no. No, I don’t think a book needs to be literal. I suppose this comes from childhood and Bible class again—all those parables of “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” I’m used to the idea that there’s something more going on than what the story tells.

Kids are smart…I mean, yeah, they’ll eat their own boogers, but they pick up on meaning pretty fast. Diana Wynne Jones, my favorite writer of all time, lamented how much a story had to be dumbed down for grownups. Children are used to figuring things out, she said. They don’t have to have everything explained to them—they take what you say as you say it, and figure things out as the story progresses.

If a story insists on being literal in its meaning, then that just sounds like the writer won’t let the readers work out the meaning for themselves.

Take a painting in an art museum. Viewers will look upon it with minds forged by countless different experiences. No perception is the same, which means no interpretation is the same. Yet interpret they will, and from that interpretation forge new ideas (even if that idea is Reason #73 of “Why I Don’t Like Art Museums”).

Now let’s say the artist is right there, explaining what all the meaning is in that painting. Some may agree, but for those who don’t interpret the painting that way, how do you think they feel? They didn’t “get” that meaning, which means something’s wrong with their perception. Something’s wrong with them.

That’s not how I’d want my readers to think.

AJ- LOL, forcing me to pick a side, eh? This was the question that started this debate process in the first place. Since the first proposal, I have had a lot of time to ponder the question and my answer is, well, a non-answer. It’s interesting that you bring up the bible because its use of stories, particularly the parables of Jesus, are a great example of why stories are both literal and figurative at the same time.

To continue with the Jesus analogy, consider the well known parable of the good Samaritan: taken literally you could interpret it as good people help other people (or super literal, as in news, that at one time a Samaritan helped a man on the road.) The brilliance of parables is that the listener opts in to the depth of meaning that suits their capacity to receive it. Most people will see that they are called to be like the good Samaritan. Others might comprehend that the Samaritans were neighbors to the Jews and should thus be treated accordingly while a select few may realize that none of these labels matter at all and that we are all both Samaritan as well as the traveler in need.

My favorite children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Joffe Numeroff is revealing meaning to this day. I’m still not sure if we should be willing to give mice cookies, knowing that we may be taken advantage of, or that we should be cold and heartless city dwellers that never give money to the homeless because it doesn’t alleviate poverty. If the book has taught me anything, it’s that the answer depends on the mouse who is asking.

On a final note, I’ve found that people will apply meaning to things even if the artist had no intention to have any meaning. Seriously, the human mind is active enough that it only needs a few crumbs in order to formulate a philosophy. In actuality, the fewer the hooks of evidence the more likely the person is to attach their own thoughts to the piece. Perhaps this debate isn’t for the artists at all because no matter how many toasters we paint, there’s still going to be a lot of people who point and say “what a lovely fridge.”

4. Should a book be primarily a metaphor?

AJ- Going off my previous comment, I believe that most stories are a mixture of metaphor and literal interpretation. Yet, just as a cake can’t just be flower, so too could a story collapse if it is only metaphor. I’ve seen other writers get caught up in a metaphor trap and by that I mean that they so stringently forced the components of the story to represent something else that they forgot that they were telling a story. Often this results in what people call “convoluted” or “overdone” because the writer was trying to apply some grand meaning to a canvas that simply wouldn’t accept paint.

JL- Oh, yes. While I adored the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, allegory is not meant for everyone. It can also easily get very, well, “preachy.” Kids don’t need to be whacked in the face with a MESSAGE. They’ll learn by reading, and discovering for themselves. I think some writers get so caught up in what everything “means” that they forget a story can be precisely that sometimes—a story.

5. What about allegories and fairy tales, how do they fit into storytelling?

AJ- LOL, I kind of already answered this one but let’s delve a little deeper. I believe that fairy tales are the appendix of religious myths. Once humanity found other ways to explain natural phenomena, a part of our culture started to miss the fun and interesting stories that were now replaced with hard facts. Fairy tales are the one place where imagination is still permitted to go to absurdity (and yes I’m lumping sci-fi into fairytales at this point.) I doubt if anyone ever questioned the motivation for the dragon stealing the princess, it’s simply what dragons do. While allegories are teaching tools best suited for spiritual progress, fairy tales are the literary equivalent of recess. They are necessary for our growth, relaxation, and crucial to our entertainment.

JL- LOL! Yes, we did rather scope this out a little, but I think I’m going to step onto the other side of the fence here. Many fairy tales strike me as cautionary tales: beware of strangers giving treats (Hansel and Gretel). Beware of wanting what you cannot have (Little Mermaid). Beware of not paying what you owe (The Pied Piper). As you point out, humanity didn’t have a whole lot of science going for it back then, and it needed SOMEthing to explain the bumps in the night. Angels and devils work, sure, but they’re not earthly, are they? I’d imagine that few kids thought they’d see an angel in their lifetime, but they were all more than certain that a witch lived  out in the unknown, waiting for them if they were naughty.

6. Do stories only have one meaning?

AJ- Stories have as many meanings as any member of the audience is willing to place upon them. I think back on many visits to modern museums where I overheard patrons snickering at what was on display saying “I could do better than that” or “this isn’t art, I know art,” never realizing that the craft and look of modern art is a sideshow to the context and meaning of the work. Modern art expects the viewer to interact with it and place meaning upon the object with the aid of clues left by the artist. Literature has the same expectation, though the clues are usually contained within the piece itself.

JL- Oh dear. I was one of those snickerers, I’m sure. Well, when an artist literally puts an empty acrylic display case up, and calls that “art,” I start to question it! Or that long blue plastic plank leaning against the wall—what’s that about? Now the suitcase on the floor that opened up to a hole lower down where a shimmering pond full of life thrived—THAT I dug.

Anyway.

On the one hand, yes. I should think stories have many potential meanings, though I do think readers tend to force meaning on sometimes. I’ll never forget my first graduate-level lit class: I was scared ****less because I had never taken any form of theory before, and people had been throwing out terms and theories over such’n’such and this’n’that for weeks. Our teacher only wanted OUR thoughts; we weren’t to research. Yet I was so overwhelmed and confused as to where people GOT all these meanings that I started reading critical theory about the story of the time anyway. Well, later that week the class was audibly stumped over a character. No one could think of anything. I slowly raised my hand: “Would you like to hear what the critics say?” The teacher threw up his hands in surrender, and smiled.

Whether or not the writer intends so many meanings is, I think, irrelevant. The writer can’t go around to every reader pointing at various things saying, “See how this means that? See? SEE?” Nor should the reader be banging on the writer’s door demanding, “So what does THIS mean? And THIS?” If we can all accept that many stories have some themes, some things it wants to get across, we’ll either catch them or we won’t. And the writer should, I’d hope, care more about telling a good story than preaching a message. That’s what pulpits are for. 🙂

7. What happens if a reader misses the point of a story?

AJ- I don’t think either the reader or the writer are penalized in any significant way. Now, if the story was boring and lost the reader’s attention, that’s a whole different issue; but if the reader simply walked away entertained then it was mission accomplished. Not every story is life changing, however, the ones that are resonate with the receivers for their entire lifetime. I have my own collection of impressions from great works that usually boil down to a single sentence or scene. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense why I kept them, yet they still bubble up at the weirdest times. If I choose to, I may reflect on that impression and place it into the context of my current life. If not then what’s the harm? First and foremost stories are meant to entertain. Instructing and inspiring are secondary.

JL- I’m with you, AJ. I even blogged about this recently, too—I never understood how people pick up all these themes in stories; it was one of my biggest struggles in graduate school. I was either engaged by the story or not. As a writer, though, I’m starting to appreciate the importance of theme in creating the story. Whether people pick up on that theme or not doesn’t matter; I just want them to enjoy the story. But I have to write it first, and I have to write it right. Theme, or having that point, helps guide writers in setting the right stages to get the right reactions out of the characters to keep the story moving forward. How’d I put it… “It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.” So, I’d say writers MUST have some sort of point, theme, however you want to call it. Readers? Readers might pick up on it. They might create some totally new themes on their own. And why not? A reader is in and of him/herself an element of the story, too. A reader brings all his/her perceptions and ideals into visualizing the world and characters. They’ll see things the writer never considered, and from there, discover new themes and ideas to apply to their own imaginations.

Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

8. Can you give any examples of a story that has no meaning at all?

Hmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose the short answer would be this: “Nope.”

A slightly longer answer would be this:

JL-Every reader has his/her own tastes. While other girls got into The Little House books, I was reading about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I wasn’t out to derive any meaning from them, just like I doubt my daughter’s determined to learn about life from The Black Lagoon books. Children aren’t the ones who “look” for meaning, nor do they know it when they see it; that’s on the parent, I think, and as a parent, I’m not restricting my kids to strictly “meaning-full” books. I like how The Black Lagoon series shares Hubie’s various misadventures in various school experiences, because they help my daughter feel more comfortable in her own school, but I’m not going to keep my kids from books whose meaning–if there at all–eludes me.

Perhaps that is a question to handle for a future debate: how much can an adult ask of a child’s story?

AJ- How much can adults ask indeed. I often wonder if parents obsess over the meaning or the lesson of a book when none of that actually matters to the child. Not to mention that it’s questionable if the morals even sink in with the child without parental intervention. Again, stories have meanings placed upon them and it’s critical for the parents to discuss the story with their children and communicate what they want the children to learn from it. In that regards, the chief job of the book is to open the conversation, not preach to the reader.

9. How do you explain pop culture media, or other “non-artistic” entertainment?

JL- Super-short answer: I don’t.

Rambling answer: I’m unable to explain this sort of entertainment, but I can tell you this: I certainly don’t care for the current trends in humor aimed at kids, nor the adult humor thrown into kid’s entertainment for the adult’s sake.

For instance, my family adored the recent The Peanuts Movie. The previews shown before the film, however, are atrocious, as each highlights peeing in the pants and turds rolling out of pant legs as the highlights of their kid-geared comedy. Then you have plenty of Disney films with extremely adult-based humor, such as a plane saying he “kicked ASSton Martin out there!” and cars describing how they wore out their tires on their honeymoon…driving.

Thanks to my controlled exposure of current pop culture, I’ve kept my children out of some markets, such as the “sexy” Bratz/Monsters High. Unfortunately, peer pressure at school can undo a lot of effort, and further propagate the “non-artistic” entertainment kids devour like a plate of brownies. My daughter has shed tears more than once because we won’t give her an I-Pad. Why does she need an I-Pad? So she can play Minecraft like the other kids.

Sadly, books no longer drive the pop culture. I don’t know if books ever did before the Harry Potter series, but they certainly haven’t since. The video game Minecraft has appeared to be the greatest of, well, game-changers, crossing from entertainment medium to medium. Yes, I know there are Minecraft books now, but those books don’t grip my daughter’s classmates for hours on end like the game does.

AJ- LOL, you are correct that most books never break into pop-culture, however, books do provide a foundation for the rest of pop-culture to build upon. Most movies have some literary foundation, as do television shows and some comics. Video games too have drawn from that well, but the same isn’t true in reverse. Movies and books based upon video games often fall flat or are disappointing because there’s no literary substance to the source material. Successful property adaptations, such as the Angry Birds movie, require so much additional material that they end up only sharing token aspects and a name. For the forceable future, I believe books will continue to be the breeding ground for most pop-culture ideas.

10. Does everything have to be so serious? What’s wrong with entertainment?

JL- GOSH no. How boring if everything had to be serious! It’s not like I learned any life lessons from my favorite 80s cartoon Silverhawks, (You can stop snickering now.) (Seriously, stop snickering.) (Okay I KNOW everyone thinks Thundercats was cooler. Leave my 80s alone!)

Sure, it’s cool when a book about pigs doing the polka also teaches instruments, or when the kids learn how weather works thanks to Curious George. But to say that’s all reading is good for–expanding knowledge–is an injustice to literature. Reading not only expands knowledge, but imagination and creativity. Reading introduces us to characters who know all our fears and hopes and dreams. Reading nudges curiosity out of its safe corner and into the wide world, if only to say goodnight to the moon.

AJ- Much like candy, stories without a hard edge are good only in moderation. The same goes for serious stories though, as they can make the world seem hollow and unfair. There has to be a mix and the best stories actually have that mix built into them. I strive to achieve that in my own work, even though most people think I do silly monster nonsense. I’m totally ok with building Trojan horses though. 😉

EXTREME cautionary tales! – Jean Lee

This is part 3 of commentary from Jean Lee. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here.


I don’t pretend to know the vast wealth of children’s literature available to today’s kids. My idea of a classic is NOT another’s; I started reading Sherlock Holmes stories at the age of 8, and my father even read them to me at bedtime. (Link to Jean’s article.) But I also read more age-appropriate fare, such as the Ramona Quimby series and the Chronicles of Narnia.

But in a recent discussion with AJ Cosmo over “how dark is too dark?”, two particular authors arose: Roald Dahl, and Philip Pullman. AJ felt that “Dahl wrote for adults and kids happened to like it.” I can’t help but wonder that in his switching back and forth between stories for kids and grown-ups, he found himself a grey area and plunked down there every now and again to write.

Goodness, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that Dahl did write for adults: Some Time Never, Kiss Kiss, My Uncle Oswald…yowza. And even the cover series seems to blend the lines a little. If you visit the official Roald Dahl website, you’ll see that the latest cover illustrations aren’t limited to the kid’s books. Going Solo is Dahl’s account of his early adulthood, which includes war conflicts and a plane crash.

Appropriate material for one on the cusp of puberty, I suppose, but not for one my daughter’s age. And if one’s a beleaguered parent on three hours of sleep snatching up pretty-looking covers like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, what’s to stop her from grabbing Going Solo?

Then there’s the stories themselves. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is well-known by all, with two film adaptations, to boot. Children get to read/watch other children be squished through tubes, shrunk, turned into fruit, attacked by squirrels (in Tim Burton’s version, anyway) and sent towards an incinerator, all in a magical factory full of sweets. This is barely one level up from a gingerbread house and a witch determined to throw kids into an oven. The Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel” was told as a cautionary tale, and I wonder if Dahl didn’t have that same mindset as he wrote: parents, tell your kids to beware of too many sweets. Of wanting too much. Of staring at the tv too long. Of being too competitive. Of stealing. Dahl WANTED kids to be scared.

Don’t agree? Have you read/seen The Witches? If ever a story scared me s***less, it’s that one. People threw a huge hulabaloo over Suzanne Collins’ description of a child getting speared in Hunger Games. The witches of Dahl’s story are kidnapping children, never to return them into the proper world. One child is magically inserted into a painting inside her family’s house. Her family gets to watch her live the rest of her life in the painting. She dies, in. The. Painting. How is that NOT horrifying?

Philip Pullman gives his villains an equally horrific task in The Golden Compass. In the primary world of the His Dark Materials trilogy, protagonist Lyra and other human beings are born with what are called daemons—an animal-like creature. It has its own thoughts and speech, but it can’t help but reflect the inner nature of its companion human, too, especially children, for it morphs into creatures that befit the child’s maturity and/or mood. It is the human’s soul, and companion. Upon first reading this, I thought it a very creative, cool move on Pullman’s part.

Then come the Magisterium, the powerful theocratic force throughout Lyra’s world. On the surface they are simply bureaucratic and awful. But when Lyra’s hunt for her kidnapped friend takes her up to the snowy north, she discovers a secret facility run by the Magisterium, where they perform intercisions. What are intercisions? We learn when Lyra meets one of the practice’s victims in a forest:

He spoke, and Iorek Byrnison said: “He says that isn’t the not the only child of that kind. He’s seen others in the forest. Sometimes they die quickly, sometimes they don’t die. This one is tough he thinks. But it would be better for him if he died.”

The little boy was huddled against the wood drying rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon (her daemon), with her left hand, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.

Later Lyra is kidnapped by the Magisterium and joins other children being held for intercisions. Nurses there call it “just a little cut” to help them grow up and ensure their daemons don’t change. Only the daemons turn ghost-like, and the children, worse. Beware the church, children, I could see Pullman say. It will take your soul, and leave you lifeless.

Did I mention Lyra is only 11 years old in The Golden Compass? Stories with kid protagonists are usually marketed to the age group slightly younger; that means kids not much older than my daughter are meant to read about children literally being severed from their souls. How is that not terrifying?

Yes, different children can handle different levels of darkness, just as some kids need nightlights and some kids don’t. A friend of mine would see Golden Compass as “full of talking points” to have with her daughter. Perhaps your child is capable of discussing soul severance and witches snatching you from your doorstep. Considering the state of today’s world, these talks are certainly worth having. But please, do consider when you start that talk. Know your child. Nurture her bravery, wit, and spirit. Only then, when she can walk over the separation from reality to story and back can you, as parent and child, face the darkness together.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.

How dark is too dark in kid’s lit? – Jean Lee

This is part 2 in a series from Jean Lee. You can check out part 1 here.


As my daughter’s sixth birthday drew to a close, my husband Bo revealed one final present: a tattered paperback titled Bunnicula. “This was one of my favorite stories when I was a kid,” he said as Blondie jumped into bed. She studied the cover showing a shaggy dog, wide-eyed cat, and red-eyed rabbit with pointed teeth. “Oooo, it’s a vampire bunny!” she squealed.

My copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Wild Robert was quickly forgotten. Any request to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with me was met with a, “Those books are weird.” But vampire bunnies? Totally acceptable.

Still, I sighed, it’s a good Daddy-Daughter time. Let’em be.

Bunnicula devoured, Bo dug out Howliday Inn. The cover itself is quite a change: Chester the cat’s hair stands on end as Harold the shaggy dog cowers behind him. A house reminiscent of Psycho looms behind them while lightning flashes across the sky. It’s literally darker, and spookier.

The content even more so. Just two nights into reading, Bo steps out during Blondie’s prayers with a worried look on his face. “Maybe I should’ve skimmed through this first.”

I look up from grading. “Why, what’s wrong?”

“Chester’s accusing some dogs of murder, and another pet’s talking about husband’s murdering wives.”

Uh oh. “Is Blondie okay?”

“She just sat quiet, like normal, but…eesh.” He went back to finish prayers with her. I listened to Blondie carefully the next day: no play-talk about murder, or questions about murder. She understood death as much as a little kid can (her grandfather died when she was three), but “murder” had been just a word in a story she knew to be made-up. And the story itself focused more on disappearing pets than on murder…until the end, where Chester explained he felt certain the human culprit behind the disappearances planned on exterminating pet parents after selling off their valuable puppies.

Yikes! We’re reading this to a first-grader!

Now our Blondie, and many other children, can handle this level of darkness just fine. They see a stark separation between “story” and “reality,” so if something unpleasant happens in the story, they know it won’t directly affect them. It’s when that separation thins that we get into trouble with such kids. For example, my kids finally saw Wall-E for the first time a month ago. After the fourth viewing Blondie started inserting her own commentary. “Look at that planet! It’s EARTH! It’s covered in garbage! Our earth could never be like that.” When I told her that actually, if we don’t take care of our earth, it could very well look like that, she grew solemn. “But Wall-E isn’t real. It’s just a story.” Yes, but it’s a story that reminds us we need to be careful so the real earth doesn’t look like that. She thinks again. “Wall-E is real, but it happened a long time ago.” Sigh, no, I didn’t say that, but I was doing something she wasn’t used to: I was thinning the separation between story and reality. Wall-E is a delightful science fiction adventure, yes, but it’s a cautionary tale, too, one that not all kids are prepared to handle.

Other authors push the limits into darkness, too, if you care to hear me out next week.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.

Real Lessons in Unreal Books, Jean Lee

I met Jean via Twitter and connected over the idea that sometimes the best way to communicate a solution to a real problem is through a fantasy story. Personally, I go back and forth between realism and screaming monsters, so this question is particularly pertinent. So here’s Jean Lee with an excerpt from “Lessons Learned, a collection of essays” to shed some light.


In Reflections on the Magic of Writing, Diana Wynne Jones notes more than once that she received flak for not writing “Real Books.” Real Books were to be about present-day, everyday-world children handling real, everyday problems: abusive parents, poverty, illness, etc. These books should then be passed on to kids actually experiencing said problems to…I don’t know, strengthen character or something. She didn’t get it either, which is why you don’t see any Real Books with Jones’ name on them. (Personally I like her recollection of fellow writer Jill Paton Walsh’s words on the matter: “If you know two people who are divorcing, would you give them each a copy of Anna Karenina? Can you imagine a less helpful book? Yet people do this to children all the time.”)

What I do love is Jones’ own style of handling Real Problems in Unreal Ways. Take Witch Week, or Year of the Griffin—who doesn’t experience some lousy spells (couldn’t resist, sorry) in school? It doesn’t matter that one of the main characters in Year is a griffin: she’s a still a new student trying to find her way through a school with horrible teachers. Eight Days of Luke, Black Maria, and Fire and Hemlock all have terrible adult guardians the child protagonist has to survive; some are mean, some are self-centered, and some are, well, magical.

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Now granted, I haven’t completed my journey through all of Jones’ work, but I did just finish The Ogre Downstairs. As I read the final pages, it occurred to me that this was the first book where magic was part of the problem, but not the solution. It’s a story of a mixed family created by a widow marrying a divorced man the widow’s children nickname The Ogre. The Ogre’s two sons are just as beastly at the outset. When The Ogre gives each group of children a unique chemical set (enter the magic!), everything gets profoundly worse with The Ogre, but better among the children. Why? Because they work together to figure out how to stop floating, or how to get their minds re-switched to their proper bodies. Magic forces them to see things from each other’s perspective, and from this they unite against The Ogre.

Magic completely destroys a party the widow wanted so badly to succeed, and the row afterwards drives the widow out of the house for space. Everyone feels terrible, including The Ogre, who is not, the children realize, an ogre at all. The story ends with a family that better understands each other and, thanks to a final round with the magical chemistry sets, enough money to live in a new house sans magic toffee creatures or living dust balls. So yes, I suppose the magic did help with a solution in the way end, but the primary conflict was not solved by magic, but by understanding and teamwork.

A Real Book kind of solution to a Real Book kind of problem in an Unreal Book. Fancy that.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.