I’m at the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop for three days of writing, critiquing, writing some more, then revising and re-writing some more. I had planned to work on my second book, a YA love story weaved into an ethics debate on the ramifications of genetic testing. Sounds strange, I know, but somehow it works.
Anyway, my plans were thrown for a little loop after a recent chat with my agent about my first book…a middle grade novel about tough inner city kids at a summer camp, which is really a subtle allegory for the evolution of contemporary street gangs. The question we came up with is:
How real can you get in terms of edgy themes and violence in a middle grade book?
Granted, this is definitely an upper middle grade read aimed at the 11-13 crowd. However, even with a somewhat “toned down” version of what gang life can become, the story still contains some elements that pre-teens may find too disturbing. Here’s my thing: If I tone it down too much, it may lose its authenticity. If an 11-year-old kid from the hood picks it up, he may expect to find some of himself in the characters, which is my goal. Chances are, this kid has witnessed violent acts on the streets or lost loved ones to them. Hate to say it, but if an upper middle class kid picks up the same book, he may be horrified by what some of the characters go through. Of course maybe he’s seen plenty of violence and inhumane acts in movies (Hello… Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Saw) or in video games, but maybe he’s never seen it in real life. (Which is not to say that rich kids don’t experience violence and only poor kids do, but for the sake of argument, I’m simplifying, of course.)
So, my problem is this: Whether the readers are rich kids, poor kids, or Sudanese kids, do we owe it to them to present life as it really is, or do we protect them from it? If I’m making a statement about violence, which I suppose I am with this book, which is that generally it’s senseless, but it’s pervasive nonetheless as long as humans inhabit the planet, and occasionally it’s necessary for protective purposes, so we as individuals must decide if and how we’ll add to the cycle, then we have to accept the consequences (i.e. retaliation, incarceration, injury, death, etc...), then I should keep it real, right?
Originally, I insisted that this was a middle grade book because the characters are 13 and many kids are initiated into gangs at age 11. But I’m guessing that most kids who read the book will never have been initiated into a real gang, and couldn’t possibly relate to some of the issues. Then again, I’m not writing about those kids, I’m writing about those who have seen uniquely horrific things at young ages.
Rather than omitting some themes and allusions to violent acts, I could also raise the ages of the characters and consider it YA. But then it defeats the original purpose, which was to create an edgy and real MG book. But how real is too real?