I have to confess that my bad characters aren't very bad, and my dark characters aren't very dark. Most of my recent books are for younger kids, third-grade-level chapter books featuring small trials and tribulations and ending with small triumphs. Ahh, but seemingly tiny moments of heartbreak and seemingly tiny markers of hard-won growth can feel huge to the child characters, and child readers, who experience them.
A couple of decades ago a book of mine received a scathing review in The New York Times, one that I can quote practically verbatim to this day. The reviewer - whom I could name but prefer not to - castigated my story because the problems my main character faced - being the shortest kid in the class, sulking in the shadows of his older brother's consistently greater success - weren't worth writing about. Everyone in the book was too nice, he sneered. Why on earth would kids, he accused, want to read the literary equivalent of "vanilla pudding"?
Well, first of all, I happen to adore vanilla pudding, I wish I had a bowl of it right now.
But, more important, I continue to think that the relatively small problems of basically kind and decent people can be the subject matter of fiction for young readers. I wrote that New York Times reviewer many letters, which of course I never mailed, and this is what I tried to tell him: To be a children's writer is by definition to take seriously problems that the rest of the world doesn't think are very important.
As both a child and an adult reader, I identified deeply with Ramona Quimby when she goes on strike from kindergarten after her teacher, Miss Binney, scolds her for pulling Susan's irresistibly tempting "boing-boing curls." Ramona can be a pest: indeed, Ramona the Pest is the title of the book. Older sister Beezus can be disdainful. It breaks Ramona's heart when she thinks that maybe Miss Binney doesn't love her any more. But no one here is wicked, no one is cruel, and everything Ramona feels is triggered by events that are microscopically small to most adult observers, though seismically significant to a five-year-old.
Little bits of darkness can blot out the sun of a young child's world. And there is a need for stories that recognize that fact and honor it with loving recognition.