Guest Post: Claire Legrand on Writing Darkness and Middle Grade
I'm so excited to welcome Claire Legrand to the blog today to chat about her books, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls and The Year of Shadows. I was very curious about how she mixes the dark elements in her books with writing for a middle grade audience, so she's here to let us know how she works it!
Last year, after my grandmother finished reading my first book, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, she called me, concerned and bewildered.
“Claire Bear,” she said, “where does all this darkness come from?”
“I don’t know, Grandma,” I answered. “It’s just how my brain works. Half of me is fluffy puppies, and that’s the me you know. But the other half of me is . . . demon puppies. And their tragic pasts. And also the evil spells they cast to seek revenge upon their creators. And the disastrous consequences of said evil spells. And this is the part of me that writes books.”
I don’t think that made her feel any better.
But I answered her honestly. I love writing dark, twisted, strange stories—stories that frighten and stories that tackle Big Questions. Stories that explore the darker side of life. I don’t know why my brain conjures up these kinds of stories, but it does, and the fact that I like writing these stories for children in particular creates an interesting challenge:
How much darkness is too much darkness?
Writers of children’s literature have a certain responsibility to our audience of young readers, and it isn’t to coddle or protect them from the world’s evils. Our responsibility is to help our readers explore the world’s evils through storytelling. The books we write offer up a safe way for kids to ask questions, consider other perspectives, and better understand their own fears about the world in which they live.
In my second book, The Year of Shadows, I explore challenging issues that unfortunately many children must confront—parental abandonment and neglect, poverty, depression, death. These topics present a different kind of darkness from the more conventional horror elements in Cavendish. This is a more realistic darkness. These are recognizable dangers.
It was important to me to address such topics, even though doing so made me uncomfortable—especially because it made me uncomfortable—because if we shy away from talking about the dark side of life, thinking we can protect children by doing so, we’re actually doing them a great disservice. By avoiding exploration and discussion of pain, grief, suffering, sadness, anger, loneliness, we deprive our children of the tools they need to cope with such emotions when they experience them in real life.
Because they will experience them, as much as we might not want them to.
That being said, I was always mindful of my audience when writing. I have a responsibility to be honest with my readers, but I also have a responsibility to explore these tough subjects in a way that is appropriate and respectful.
Scary things happen in The Year of Shadows—both supernatural and not.
Protagonist Olivia and her friend Henry allow themselves to be possessed by ghosts, a grueling process that leaves them emotionally, mentally, and physically drained.
Olivia’s mother abandoned her family, and Olivia’s father is so caught up in grief and professional frustration that he ignores his daughter.
The ghosts Olivia befriends are not the only ghosts present in this story. Shades—ghosts who have lost all traces of humanity and therefore all hope of ever moving on and finding peace—terrorize Olivia, her friends, and her family, impeding her plans to help her ghostly friends and save her conductor father’s concert hall.
Olivia’s family has been financially crippled by the economic recession; money is an omnipresent villainous force eating away at Olivia’s peace of mind.
And there is the lurking threat of Limbo—home of the shades and the nothingspace between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead.
I’m not sure which is more frightening of the above—the ghosts and their ilk, or the lack of money, the lack of family, the lack of stability.
For Olivia, it’s the latter. She’s frightened by the shades, but she feels more comfortable facing them than she does the uncertainty in the rest of her life. Shades are conquerable—she hopes—but the rest of her life? She has forgotten how to hope that will get better.
Luckily, Olivia has people in her life who do remember what it is to hope, and who do their best to help her.
And that—that feeling of hope, of possibility, of safety—is the element I made sure to weave through The Year of Shadows. Olivia may not see it at first, but through re-learning how to trust, how to rely, how to love, she rediscovers what it is to hope. To feel safe. To feel wanted. She realizes that hope has been present all around her—in the musicians of her father’s orchestra, who want to help her family; in the magic of music, which in her anger she has rejected; in the friendship of her classmate Henry, who refuses to give up on Olivia even when she’s given up on herself.
If that is present—that reminder of goodness in the world; that glimmer of hope, however small—then I feel comfortable exploring darker subjects with my young readers. Maintaining that thread of hope through even the most unsettling story is like holding their hands while passing through a storm. The passage will be frightening, but I won’t let go of them, not until we’re safely through on the other side.
Thank you very much, Claire! That's such a well-written post with some really great points. I love seeing this come through in The Year of Shadows, as well! I totally agree that we can't hide everything from kids because they're going to have to deal with some of this eventually, and literature is one of the best ways we can do this. Thanks again, Claire!
Make sure you check out Claire's books,
The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls and The Year of Shadows. I'm currently loving TYoS and both books have received some wonderful praise!
Claire Legrand used to be a musician until she realized she couldn't stop thinking about the stories in her head. Now a writer, Ms. Legrand can often be found typing with purpose at her keyboard, losing herself in the stacks at her local library, or embarking upon spontaneous adventures to lands unknown. Her first novel is THE CAVENDISH HOME FOR BOYS AND GIRLS, a New York Public Library Best Book for Children in 2012. Her second novel, THE YEAR OF SHADOWS, a ghost story for middle grade readers, is available now. Her third novel, WINTERSPELL, will follow in fall 2014. She is one of the four authors behind THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, an anthology of dark middle grade fiction due out in July 2014 from Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins. Claire lives in New Jersey with a dragon and two cats. Visit her at claire-legrand.com and at enterthecabinet.com.
Have you guys read any of Claire's books? What do you think about the points she made?
Make sure to check out The White Unicorn today for a review of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea!