Storytelling or Missionizing?

Robertson DaviesI idolized Jean Little in my pre-teens and early teens. Many of her books helped me understand other children. I do believe they made me a nicer person. One novel, Different Dragons, even helped me get over my fear of dogs (though I still greatly dislike them). I wanted to write similar stories, ones that helped others understand their friends, family, and even strangers better. I didn’t want to scare anyone, or hurt anyone, or embarrass anyone. I wanted to help. But I was still too young to look past someone’s physical appearance into their soul, and that showed in my writing.

My problem, according to Robertson Davies, was that I was focusing on the message and not the story. (He didn’t advise me personally – I simply enjoy reading his essays.) Davies felt that too many writers were trying to missionize. I was in that category. “Write about what you know,” they say. While I don’t think that always has to be true, it did apply to my stories at the time. Jean Little wrote in her first autobiography that she began writing to fill a void in fiction. In her younger years, she used to work with children who faced various  challenges. She loved reading to them, but every disabled child in the books she read magically became abled at the end:

I was looking for a book in which the child’s handicap was present only in the background. The kids I taught were no conscious of their disabilities most of the time. They minded when people stared at them, or when their brothers and sisters got bicycles, of course. But usually they were too busy living to brood. Physio and occupational therapy were like arithmetic and reading, an accepted part of their days.

[…]

Why couldn’t there be a happy ending without a miracle cure? Why wasn’t there a story with a child in it who resembled the kids I taught? Somebody should write one, I thought. It did not yet cross my mind that that somebody might be me. [Little, Jean. Little by Little: a Writer’s Education. Markham: Penguin Books. 1987. Excerpt from pages 224-225.]

She currently has over 40 publications to her name, from 1962 to now. She knew how to capture the soul of each child in her work. The books aren’t about “be nice to handicapped kids.” They describe real children’s growing pains, regardless of what daily challenges they face. The child could have cerebral palsy, be afraid of dogs, or live during the Spanish flu epidemic. I stopped reading Little when I was about 13 or so, so I’m no fully familiar with her current works. But as a child on the quieter side of the spectrum, she connected with me.

Fast forward 20 years, when I have my own children. I had started another book with my boys last night: Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott:

Soonie’s family makes SHOW WAYS – quilts with secret meanings that are maps to freedom. Her family tells stories of bravery that inspire courage. Each generation passes on to the next the belief that there is a road to a better place. [Book summary.]

Beautifully written, it let me read a book to my young boys about American black history over two nights. My youngest is a bit too young – he doesn’t understand that sort of thing yet. But my older son was quite enthralled, despite claiming at the beginning of each night that he didn’t want to read it. The theme described how mothers pass down hope, generation to generation, through quilting. The background was slavery and then the civil rights movement in the US. For older children, they may have recognized some of the photos pulled out of history. For young children, they blended in to the background as my kids listened to my words.

My third example of an excellent children’s writer (because this is a genre prone to missionizing) is Marc Brown and his Arthur series. I get more excited when Arthur comes on in the morning than my kids. And my anticipation increases when I realize it’s an episode I haven’t seen yet. (They’re currently in season 18, so I have lots of episodes to watch out for.) Arthur, Francine, the Brain, George, Muffy, D.W., Binky…all the characters could just as well be my kids’ friends at school. They’ve tackled cancer, Alzheimer’s (with Joan Rivers’ help – awesome episode), bullying, trying to write a story that’s true to you…The last thing I think about is being missionized to. The first thing I see is an excellent story.

I’ve spent a lot of time debating how to tackle topics that are important to me, the kinds that I think people should read about. It’s easy to rant in an op-ed piece for the local paper. Not so easy is writing excellent fiction on a difficult topic that invites the reader in instead of shutting the reader out. You can’t missionize, you have to tell the story.

There is nothing more satisfying than understanding a challenge you’ve carried with you for so long and finally knowing the direction you have to go in to fix it.

4 thoughts on “Storytelling or Missionizing?

  1. You raise an excellent point, Lori. Kids are the first ones to spot that they’re being preached to. They know when their teachers choose a book that it’s about the message not about the story, and by the time they hit middle school, they can be pretty cynical about it. There are writers who write about tough issues and readers who seek those books out and can’t wait to read about them. I think the challenge is to write a great story that everyone wants to read because it has great characters, and humour, and a story you can’t put down–and the characters work through some tough issues, too. It’s a tough balance to find. Wish I had it!

  2. Thanks, Heather. Even though my kids are still pretty young, they can smell a lesson a mile away 🙂 But if it’s something like Arthur, I can talk to them about it, and they’re still watching the show.

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