Like all authors who try to craft a compelling story, I give my characters challenging problems to deal with. Occasionally I give them what the world might agree is a major problem: my recent novel One Square Inch is about a sixth-grade boy who creates an imaginary world with his little sister where they can escape from their mother’s bipolar disorder; my forthcoming novel Zero Tolerance is about a seventh-grade girl who finds herself facing mandatory expulsion under her school’s harsh “zero tolerance” policies when she brings an apple-cutting knife to school by mistake after having snatched the wrong lunchbox off the counter that morning.
But usually I give my characters problems that the rest of the world would think are very small. The biggest trouble Wilson faces in 7 x 9 = Trouble! is whether he can pass all his timed multiplication tests by the deadline to receive a promised ice cream cone. The only disasters Mason faces in Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters are having to sing in public and having his dog eat the head off the school’s beloved stuffed-toy-dragon mascot.
I was criticized once years ago, in a scathing review of my book Losers, Inc. in the New York Times (my one and only review in the Times), for choosing to write about small problems. The reviewer mocked me for writing about a kid who wishes he were taller, feels bad that he isn’t as successful as his super-star older brother, and dies a thousand deaths when a girl in his class keeps writing love poems to him. The reviewer, in a line I’ll never forget, called my book “sanitized, censorship-proof vanilla pudding,” noting that other authors were tackling problems like drive-by shootings and prenatal crack addiction.
In one of the many letters that I wrote in reply (but fortunately did not send!), I remember saying that to write for children is almost by definition to write about problems that the rest of the world doesn’t think are very important. Yes, Wilson’s problems are small, and Mason’s problems are small – and Ramona Quimby, Junie B Jones, and Clementine have small problems, too. But the problems don’t feel small to these characters, and I don’t think they feel small to child readers, either.
This week of the tragic Boston Marathon explosions is a week where we know all too well that the world is full of huge, terrible, brutal, hideous cruelty. But there is still room in children’s fiction for honoring the small problems of children, problems that matter to the small people who live them, however little they matter in the scheme of things. Even as I’m reeling from the senseless carnage in Boston, I still care whether or not a third grader can earn his math-reward ice cream cone, and whether a fourth grader who hates to sing can make himself step up to the microphone to help his best friend overcome stage fright during a school concert.
Small things matter, too.