Sooner or later just about every writer of children and teen material whether fiction or non-fiction faces a similar set of sticky questions. Are certain subjects taboo? Keeping in mind the young and impressionable reader, just how forthright can I be? Just what can I include and how far can I go with it?
I hit these questions head on while writing Ordeal on Mammoth Mountain, one of the stories in Life or Death: Surviving the Impossible (Scholastic Canada, 2014). Here’s a brief recap.
In 2004, while snowboarding on California’s Mammoth Mountain, professional hockey player turned snowboarder Eric Le Marque lost his way during a fierce snowstorm. For days he trudged on frozen feet through drifts, fighting hunger, thirst, hypothermia and growing despair as he tried to find a way off the mountain. Le Marque carried few supplies, but he did have an MP3 player and at one point he used it to tap into a radio broadcast. He noticed that the signal varied in strength depending on the direction he pointed the device and Le Marque quickly figured out that that the MP3 player could be used like a compass. By following the strongest signal, he thought he might find his way off the mountain.
There’s more to the story, but eventually Le Marque was rescued by a helicopter crew. He was close to death and his feet were so badly frozen that both legs had to be amputated.
Initial reports of Le Marque’s rescue emphasized his innovative use of the MP3 player and told of his heroic struggle to stay alive on Mammoth Mountain. But there was a dark side to his story too, and some of those details only surfaced later. Le Marque had been a long-time drug user and when he ran into trouble, he was carrying a baggie containing a day’s worth of crystal meth.
The story fit the theme of the book, but I wondered about its drug-use elements. Did young readers need to know this? Would including these facts taint the story and push it beyond acceptable levels for young readers?
On first telling, I decided not to mention the drug reference. Since Le Marque didn’t use his supply of the crystal meth during his 8 days on the mountain, I didn’t think it was pertinent to the outcome of the story. Later, during revisions, my editor raised a few key questions. Just what role did drugs play in the overall story? If drugs were involved, was this really an appropriate story for Scholastic? Maybe it should be cut out entirely.
I examined the drug issue again and re-read Le Marque’s own chronicle of events in his book Crystal Clear: The Inspiring Story of How an Olympic Athlete Lost his Legs Due to Crystal Meth and Found a Better Life. While it was true that Le Marque never used his supply of crystal meth on the mountain, he had, in fact, started the day in a drug-induced fog. This likely contributed to a few poor choices and those led directly to Le Marque’s survival problem.
I revised the original version and laid bare the bones of truth. The new version contained the crystal meth information, but also ended with a note of victory that made it palatable for younger readers. After his experience on the mountain, Le Marque forged a new life for himself, kicking his drug habit along the way.
While drug references like this might seem tame in a world permeated by daily drug busts, the experience made me wonder. What guidelines should writers of children and teen material follow? What ethical responsibilities do we as writers bear? What is acceptable? What is not? How do we know?
These questions led me to the Internet and a stack of books on writing. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much, but here are three questions you might ask yourself if you are wondering what to include or exclude from your writing:
Who am I writing this for? What age group?
YA readers can stomach just about any topic depending on how it is presented – rape, incest, brutality, drug-dependency, death. Most have the developmental clout to handle it. Not young readers, however. Sometimes it helps to identify a youngster you know who is in the age bracket you are targeting – a son/daughter, niece/nephew, grandchild, child of a friend…. Would you encourage this person to read what you are writing?
What does the reader learn in the end? What is the net impact of my writing?
Not every story or article has to be squeaky clean, free of controversy or even happily resolved, but it helps to take a step back and ask what readers will gain. Is the outcome a positive, character-building or mind-shaping one? Are the values inherent in the story or article respectful of the values of larger society? Did I give a balanced treatment to the subject? Again maturity and age matter a lot. YA readers can deal with shades of grey and they relish material that smacks of issues and moral dilemmas. Younger readers not so much. For them, the world is a cushion of blacks and whites.
Is this something the publishing house I am targeting typically publishes?
If you are aiming to have your story or article published, check submission guidelines. Often they spell out the kind of material the publisher is seeking and just as often this is accompanied by a list of recommendations. Acquaint yourself with the publisher’s catalogue and read a few of the listings. Some publishers have a reputation for pushing the envelope; others hang back and steer a more moderate course.