semi + memoir
A lot of memoirs seem to focus on exceptionally sad childhoods, or exceptionally funny ones. Funny memoirs often sound like they’re written by someone having a ton o’ fun reminiscing, while sad ones often seem therapeutic. But memoir-writing is not what I want to talk to you about. I want to talk about semoirs. Semoirs are those stories adults write about their own childhoods, but masked as fiction for children.
One of the most common topics popping up around the Disco Mermaid dinner table concerns books written by adults, about children, that don’t necessarily seem to be written for children…but instead, for adults. Don't deny it; you know what I'm talking about. At some point, you’ve all started reading a children’s book and said, “Would a kid actually want to read this?”
One of the Mermaids recently started reading a book because the reviews described it as a hilarious story. But this middle grade novel is more of a dark comedy, poking fun at the eccentricities of a dysfunctional family. Unfortunately, those dysfunctions are the types dealt with by real children every day. And when you’re a child, there is nothing funny about being in that situation…as that Mermaid will attest. If I told you which book I’m talking about (which I won’t), and you were to grab it off a bookshelf and look at the author’s bio, you’d see that the author had a similar upbringing. Knowing that, the book almost reads like the author wanted to write a memoir, but didn’t want to fully contemplate the meaning of his/her childhood (and that contemplation is essential to a good memoir). Instead, the dysfunctions come across as darkly humorous because the reader never gets a good sense of the character’s emotions when facing those dysfunctions. Yet when real children face those same problems, it’s extremely embarrassing…if not horrifying. And that type of realistic dark humor is not something I think elementary school children can appreciate yet. Furthermore, readers who have better childhoods than the one presented, but who know children with those problems, may not come away very empathetic.
I've been coming across too many children’s books that read like they’re written by an adult looking back…either reminiscing (which comes off as an aloof main character), or glossing over serious issues by removing hardcore emotions (which is…well…it's just not good). I think the reason I’m finding so many books like this is because, no matter which writing conference you attend or how-to book you read, the “write what you know” mantra is endlessly played.
Well, I say we should stop this madness! Instead, let's write what we’re interested in, or what we want to know. Because when we write purely from the School of What We Know, it's hard to fully appreciate what other people don’t know…and that's where we tend to gloss over things. I don’t know how many times I’ve critiqued a friend's manuscript and listened to him/her say, “But that's what really happened.” Right, but it happened to you...in real life. Your situation was a little different from your main character’s, and it just didn’t seem like it would happen to your character in that way. You're too stuck in your own past and not your character's present. (Of course, I'm talking to my generic friend here, and not you…specifically.)
Similarly, I recently read a book which mentioned the unusual occupation of the main character’s father. That interesting fact wasn’t dropped until after I knew the main problem of the book. The moment that occupation was revealed, I started imagining all of the extra problems that career could cause for the main character. Unfortunately, his career played no role in the book (other than as a funny aside). And when I came across an interview with the author a short while later…can you guess what I’m about to say?…she'd simply plunked her father’s career into the book. So she didn’t fully appreciate how interesting that bit of information was, and how it could possibly be a distraction to the story (or, better yet, how it could have added to the story, had she explored it more deeply).
What I’m saying is, if an adult writes a story based on a real childhood experience, it's important to remember how it actually felt to be that child, and not write it from the perspective of experience gained through expensive therapy…unless, of course, the author is writing a memoir.
Because semoirs are driving me crazy!
P.S. On second thought...nevermind. It's probably just me.