When I think of kind and caring, I think of writer Barbara Dee. She cares so much about her kid readers, that she bravely writes about the challenges so many of them face and I so admire that about her. In addition, I genuinely appreciate what she shares in the essay below regarding adult characters in kids’ books. Adult characters can come across as two-dimensional characters because the spotlight, rightly so, shines on the kid characters. As usual, Barbara’s writing has given this writer much food for thought.
For a writer of middle grade fiction, one of the biggest challenges is creating adults who seem like real, rounded characters with their own inner lives, struggles, secrets and backstories. Especially when you write middle grade in the first person, you’re seeing adult characters through the lens of a kid–which means you often need to convey that there’s more to these adults than the kid protagonist perceives.
In my tenth middle grade novel, Maybe He Just Likes You (Aladdin), the main character, Mila, is being sexually harassed by a group of boys in middle school. Her stressed-out, overworked mom knows there’s something going on; she keeps asking Mila if she’s having friendship problems, which Mila, not wanting to add to her mom’s stress, denies. Mila doesn’t know the whole story of her mom’s stress, just that it’s some combination of a deadbeat ex-husband, an abusive boss, and money worries. But even with that limited information, Mila is so aware of her mom’s struggles that she withholds the truth about her own.
One of the challenges in creating the character of Mila’s mom was deciding what was going on behind the scenes, at her job. In my first draft of the novel, I made it clear that Mila’s mom was being sexually harassed by her boss. But as I revised, I decided to omit that subplot for two reasons.
First, I thought it seemed a bit contrived to have both mother and daughter be sexually harassed simultaneously.
And second, I worried that if Mila’s mom was being subjected to an adult version of sexual harassment at work, it might serve to trivialize what Mila was experiencing at school. My goal in writing Maybe He Just Likes You was to depict how deeply troubling this sort of boys-will-be-boys behavior can be to the kid being harassed, especially when that kid is dealing with the confusion and insecurity of puberty. I thought that if Mom’s boss was sexually harassing her in the workplace, it might make Mila’s situation seem less consequential, less urgent. So I amended Mom’s conflict with her boss to be about misrepresenting financial figures. But I have to say that some readers–mostly adults–have picked up on the vestige of sexual harassment underlying the conflict.
My next middle grade novel, My Life in the Fish Tank (Aladdin September 15, 2020), is about a family derailed by the oldest son’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder. To the twelve-year-old protagonist, Zinny, one of the scariest things about the family’s new normal is watching her parents’ retreat from family life: her dad hides out at work, while her mom takes a leave of absence from her teaching job, tuning out Zinny and her siblings by listening to true-crime podcasts and running.
Zinny is a smart, empathetic kid who understands exactly why her parents are struggling to cope. Still, she’s perceptive enough (and old enough) to call out their hypocrisy in asking that her brother’s situation be kept “private” from friends and classmates. Sometimes a kid gets a peek behind the curtain of adulthood, seeing things adult characters don’t intend her to see. For a middle grade author, these moments are tricky to pull off, but thrilling to write.
Barbara Dee is the author of ten middle grade novels, including 2019’s Maybe He Just Likes You, one of the Washington Post’s Best Books of 2019, a 2020 ALA Notable Book and a 2020 ALA Rise List Book. Everything I Know About You is one of the 2019 Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year, and included on A Mighty Girl’s Best of 2018. Halfway Normal (2017) appears on state lists in Pennsylvania, Missouri, South Carolina, Maryland and Vermont. Star-Crossed(2017) is an ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, a 2018 Goodreads Choice Finalist, and on many Best of 2017 lists. Barbara’s next book, My Life in the Fish Tank, will be published by Aladdin/S&S September 15, 2020.