If you really think about it, it’s not kids that buy books (at least most of the time it isn’t). Yes, I remember book ordering day when we purchased books from Scholastic, and then there were book fairs. The money didn’t come from me, it came from an adult, and I always had to give an account of the book I wanted to get.
I know Grandma or Grandpa can be “wheedled” into buying books at grandkid’s request, but all in all, it’s not kids buying the books. Keep in mind there is a good reason for that, kids don’t have money. (The exception to this is older high school age kids that have a job, but live at home). Since the money comes from parents, parents get to exercise veto power on any media that comes into their child’s possession, which is as it should be. And at school? That can be another matter.
In school, usually it’s the acquisition librarian or committee, filtering book purchases based on worldview and\or educational models. Most states also have core requirements for reading, so teachers’ hands can also be very much tied, but it’s still adults deciding what kids have access to. (For the record, I’m always trying to cut teachers some slack, because they are bound by curriculum and educational outcomes.)
The point is that anyone writing for children or young adults must pay close attention to the secondary audience–adults, as much as the primary audience—young people. For writers to ignore this is to do so at their own peril.
This is where worldview comes into play. Fiction always has a worldview in mind, simply because it’s written by human beings. Not all writers believe the things their novels portray, but most writers worldview gets into their work at some level. The good novelist understands this and resists the urge to preach. The novelist tells stories with scenes and dialogue, but never preaches–at least the good ones don’t, at least in very subtle way.
If you wish to create moral stories, and I hope you do, you need to master the art of the “slant theme”. What’s a slant theme? It is the secondary or tertiary theme that runs in the background while the primary theme is happening. Let me give you an example. Let’s take on a relevant theme – texting and driving.
Tiffany was driving her friends to school when Tiffany gets a text. She answers back, but her eyes leave the road and in one terrible minute she runs over a pedestrian and kills him or her. We could make the pedestrian someone unlikable, or an unpopular kid. We could also make the victim a popular kid too.
Terrified, Tiffany and friends look around and see no witnesses. They drive off without telling anyone. Victim dies, Tiffany and friends swear a blood oath to keep the secret forever and everything will be fine. Fine, until the victim’s ghost comes back to haunt Tiffany.
Now there is this terrible secret, and a vengeful ghost creating havoc trying to get even. This isn’t about texting and driving, because what we want to focus on is Tiffany’s inner struggle with what’s right and wrong. What are her social obligations? We can also watch friendships crumble beneath the weight of terrible secrets as guilt ravages the individuals. Then we watch the girls become hardened and calloused. This still isn’t about texting and driving. It’s about exploring what happens when we don’t treat people like we want to be treated. A completely moral story by the way. If you make it about texting and driving, you will lose your audience. Don’t like that idea?
How about the vengeful ghost finds nerdy kid that was crushing on the victim in life. Ghost pressures nerdy kid into helping find justice. Nerdy kid helps the ghost to move on while helping Tiffany own up to what happened, but nerdy kid isn’t going to be judgmental because nerdy kid knows how unfair life can be. Bad decisions made in in haste have devastating impacts for years. Now the reader can explore personal accountability from two different angles. Does nerdy kid owe ghost anything? We don’t answer that for our reader, we give them an outcome that allows them to figure out the answer for themselves.
Let’s add a few more tweaks, just for fun. Tiffany and friends find out that nerdy kid is on their trail. Since they’ve already killed someone, why not murder nerdy kid. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? Still don’t like? Come up with your own.
Using a slant theme allows you touch on relevant issues as secondary and tertiary themes without resorting to cramming a world view down your reader’s throat. I love books that allow me to think for myself and will not tell me what to think, but gives me the opportunity to think. Wouldn’t a kid like that kind of story too?
Let’s do our non-adult readers a favor, let’s not preach at them. You know what? Let’s do our adult readers a favor too. Instead, let’s spin marvelous stories with characters they can identify with and give them situations and plots that open their minds and hearts in ways that encourages critical thinking while having fun.
Oh, wait a minute. Yes, sometimes we like being preached at when we are the choir and the preacher is preaching something we believe in. By all means preach if you’re sure of your audience.
Now tell me which is more entertaining my story idea or the PSA video?