I usually don’t write about hot topics, however “hotness” is defined. I tend to write books that have a somewhat old-fashioned sensibility, about small, timeless problems that children have faced for generations and will continue to face for generations to come. But for the first time ever in my career, I did just publish a book on a topic that is “hot,” or is at least about a “hot button” issue.
Zero Tolerance is my exploration of zero tolerance discipline policies in public schools, where students face harsh mandatory penalties for certain infractions, no excuses, no exceptions. Sierra is a “perfect” girl who errs on the side of self-righteous goody-goodyness until the day she brings the wrong lunch to school by mistake, her mother’s lunch that contains a knife for cutting her mother’s apple. Sierra turns in the knife instantly, but now she is facing mandatory expulsion under her school’s zero tolerance policies regarding drugs and weapons.
When I first sent the idea to my editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, she cautioned against the risk of writing a “problem novel”: a book overly focused on dutifully introducing young readers to some kind of social problem, a book that serves more as propaganda than as literature.
To head off her worries, I did three things.
First, I was interested first and foremost in how my protagonist would change and grow as a result of her encounter with the zero tolerance policies, as her fundamental assumptions are unseated and her guiding expectations overturned. How does a good girl change when she’s treated like a bad girl? Do the lines between “good” and “bad” begin to blur?
Second, I chose to focus on the ethically complex elements of Sierra’s story rather than the ethically obvious one. The ethically obvious point to make is: zero tolerance policies are unfair and unjust. The ethically interesting question is: how do we respond to unfairness and unjustness without becoming unfair and unjust ourselves? Sierra’s attorney father is determined to destroy her principal at all costs. How is Sierra going to respond to her draconian punishment? How should she respond?
Finally I tried to connect with the universal emotional core that lay beneath the trendy, ripped-from-the-nightly-news topic. At the core of Sierra’s story is an experience that all children will have at some point in their lives: the experience of being treated unfairly, and even more poignantly, the experience of being treated unfairly by someone you loved and trusted.
Now that the reviews are coming in, I’m finding that it’s fun to have written about a hot topic. Librarians and teachers are eager to share their own zero tolerance war stories with me. The book is being recommended for discussion groups because of its controversial subject matter – though also, I hope, because of how I handled that controversial subject matter. I may try to find another hot topic to write about one of these days – or rather, hope that another hot topic finds me. For in the end, writers can do justice to a hot topic only if they themselves connect with the enduring issues that remain even after the topic’s current hotness has cooled down.