And yours, too!
Making a sordid adult tale safe for young readers.
You should have seen the looks on my friends’ faces when I told them I’d been hired to write a children’s book about Judy Garland. Shock was an understatement. They were like, “Wait, the Judy Garland? When you take away the drugs, booze, and sex, what’s left?”
That might explain why there’s never been a children’s books about her – and why adult books, at least since 1975 – have focused on all those lurid details. We adults just can’t get enough of those tabloid tales.
Which raised the question: how do I make my book safe for middle-grade readers?
The answer came in asking the right questions. Don’t ask, “Is the subject matter age-appropriate? Is it grade-appropriate?” You’ll drive yourself nuts. Children mature at different rates. Girls mature faster than boys. Children face different problems based on their home life, surroundings, etc. And schools introduce topics at different grades.
Instead, focus on very specific questions
These are the questions I asked as I planned my book Judy Garland: Little Woman, Big Talent.
1. What kind of book am I writing? I decided I didn’t want to write a tell-all for 3rd-7th graders. I wanted to focus on the positive aspects of Judy’s life, as well as her amazing talent. You may have to get darker depending upon your specific topic, but know what your story is about before you start writing.
2. Is it necessary to the story? This question is good for any book, but in this case, I had a lot to work with. I decided her abortion in the 1940s was not necessary to the story. Nor was her father’s bisexuality, or Judy’s place as a gay icon. Her drug use, however, was necessary to the story, since it greatly affected her career and caused her death.
3. Have they covered it in class? This might be difficult to know, but you can always look up what your target audience should be learning in school. In my case, 4th-6th graders have generally learned a bit about drugs, “Just Say No”, or D.A.R.E. All this makes Judy’s drug use a safe topic.
4. Can it be given an educational purpose? Judy’s drug abuse could be given an education angle: that is, “don’t do drugs.” It serves as a cautionary tale. And while subjects like gay marriage are in the news, introducing that topic to the story opens up a whole other can of worms. Parents might be uncomfortable discussing alternative sexualities with their children, particularly if it isn’t on their radar yet, but most parents will gladly say, “Yep, don’t do drugs. See what happened to Judy?!”
5. Is it part of their everyday experience? This is also hard to know at an individual level, but certain things are safe. With a divorce rate over 50%, most kids are familiar with it. This means they’re also familiar with multiple marriages. And while Judy went to the extreme with five, I felt okay mentioning her divorces and remarriages – though I only covered four of them since I didn’t harp on it. I did not get into the reasons behind those break-ups. Nor did I get into her love affairs with Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, James Mason, etc. See questions one and two: they aren’t part of the celebration of Judy as a child star, nor are they are necessary to the story.
6. Can they relate to it? This may seem like another amorphous question – “How should I know what they relate to?”, but certain topics, whether you’re writing a picture book or young adult novel, are appropriate. In Judy’s case, she battled serious self-esteem issues relating to her looks, height, weight, etc. Many girls, the primary audience for this book, can relate to that, and so I included it. I showed them how Judy achieved great success regardless of her physical appearance. In other words, if she didn’t let it stop her, neither should you. I also wrote about her unrequited love for Mickey Rooney because just about everyone has liked someone who didn’t like them back.
Children’s books have tackled many tough topics over the years, but written with grade-level language and sensitivity, young readers will quickly grasp what you’re saying and appreciate it – and so will their parents!
Order your copy of Judy Garland: Little Woman, Big Talent today!