Hi Meg –
I’m really glad we looked more deeply into the role of secondary characters, both the more significant characters, like Annemarie, and the seemingly less so, like Jimmy, and the teacher. I have found that as a result I’m paying far more attention to the secondary characters in the middle-grade novel I’m revising, and isn’t that precisely the point of this work?
On we go, to Larger Social Issues.
As authors for children we are advised to steer away from being didactic. How, then, does a writer convey a strongly held belief, piece of morality, or life lesson without making the reader feel preached to? After reading When You Reach Me I am left feeling quite confident about some of Stead’s beliefs:
• That our system of incarceration is broken.
• That racism is an abhorrent thing.
• That the problem with homelessness in our country is a complex issue in which the need for personal safety and the desire to be kind often butt heads, resulting in our simply treating the homeless and helpless as though they are invisible.
• That the world would be a gentler place if girls were not so mean.
The writer in me wants to understand how I took all this away when I never, for a moment, felt that Stead was standing on a soapbox pushing her beliefs at me. And here is the conclusion that I have drawn—it all goes back to that old adage, show don’t tell. Stead succeeded because she never used narrative to describe these larger social issues. Instead, she thrust her characters into believable situations in which they either faced these things directly, or shared dialogue about them.
Raising social issues such as these makes our work more relevant to our readers, and makes our books excellent catalysts for classroom discussions. Now, a look at how Stead contemplates these issues without being heavy-handed . . .
Our System of Justice
Once a month Miranda’s mother works at a jail where she talks to pregnant prisoners about what to expect after their babies are born. She explains to Miranda that jail is a hard place. That it changes people, “from becoming who they might grow to be.” (p. 85) Miranda sees that as a good thing, after all, jail is supposed to change you, to reform you so that you are no longer a criminal. Her mother explains, “A lot of people make bad mistakes. But being in jail can make them feel like a mistake is all they are. Like they aren’t even people anymore.” ( p. 85) At another point Miranda’s mother says, “not everyone accused of a crime is a criminal.” (p. 116)
There is never a statement made that our system of justice is broken, but the discussions between Miranda and her mother cause the reader to contemplate such a possibility.
The Meanness of Girls
Girls can be really mean. I know this from experience both as the girl who dished it out and the girl who meanness was heaped onto. In When You Reach Me, the girls in Miranda’s classroom are vicious to Alice Evans. Alice seems a perfectly likable girl, but she has the unfortunate challenge of needing to use the restroom often, and urgently. When the girls sense that Alice needs to go, they do their best to delay her. They find it funny watching her writhe and twitch. It is painful to read about.
Miranda eventually befriends Alice when she offers to go with her to the restroom. She says, “Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean.” (p. 144) In that same discussion she goes on to say, “I wasn’t one of the girls who tortured her on purpose, but I had never lifted a finger to help her before, or even spend one minute being nice to her.”
As writers for children, we must, through our fiction, offer our readers strategies for navigating the real world. We must give them opportunities to see themselves as both the good guy and the bad guy, because really, aren’t we all a bit of both? Stead has done young readers a service by demonstrating the hurtful affects of meanness, and offering way out.
Miranda explains about the character Julia, “I soon found out that Julia wasn’t like the rest of us.” (p. 34) This is not because Julia is black, plenty of kids in Miranda’s world are shades of black or brown. The thing that makes Julia different is that she is wealthy. For Miranda it is Julia’s wealth, and not her color that is an issue. The character Jimmy, on the other hand, is a bigot who spurns anyone whose skin color is a shade off-white. When Annemarie understands his motivation for keeping Julia out of his sandwich shop, she calls him a “racist pig.” (p. 129) Rightfully so.
I love the fact that Stead has introduced racial conflict in a way that is in keeping with how children, especialy children living in a non-homogenous place like New York might experience it. While they themselves may be color-blind, the world, sadly, isn’t. Stead never says, “racism is bad.” Instead, she demonstrates the ignorance of racism through the character Jimmy.
In the character the laughing man Stead confronts the issue of homelessness. Here is a man who shows up out of nowhere, the way homeless people do. He laughs for no apparent reason. Shakes his fist at the sky, yelling. He sleeps with his head under the mailbox. By anyone’s account, he is not just homeless, he is mentally ill. The kids have taken to calling him names, which initiates this conversation between Miranda and her mother:
“Don’t call him Quack,” Mom said. “That’s an awful name for a human being.”
“Even a human being who’s quackers?”
"I don’t care. It’s still awful.” (p. 16)
At one point Miranda and Sal walk past the laughing man as if he were not there. Isn’t that what most of us do when encountering a homeless person? Stead makes a bit of social commentary about that phenomenon: “It’s crazy the things a person can pretend not to notice.” (p 18.)
In the chapter titled Mom’s Rules for Life in New York City Miranda describes the precautions she’s been taught to take as a child growing up in a large city. Having lived in New York for years, I found Miranda’s list of precautions to be completely plausible. We all learn to avoid eye contact. We insulate ourselves from other people. It is illuminating when Miranda says, “and I’ve discovered that most people I’m afraid of are actually very friendly.” (p 26.)
Later, Miranda gives the laughing man a sandwich. When her mother objects to Miranda’s having done so, Miranda is taken aback. She thought her mother would approve of her demonstrating kindness to a homeless person. Instead, Miranda’s mother delivers a lecture on the inappropriateness of Miranda’s having, “struck up a relationship with a mentally ill person.” (p. 115) Her mother goes on to explain that she is simply concerned for Miranda’s safety.
Again, Stead points a finger at the social struggle we are all faced with. To preserve our own safety we look the other way and ignore social outcasts, yet we teach our children about the importance of generosity and kindness and that all people should be treated equally.
A final note about Stead’s treatment of the homeless and seemingly mentally ill—they all have a story. Some of them are even heroes. Maybe we would be less judgmental, less fearful if we knew what that story was.
Storysleuths’ Tip # 24: Don’t be afraid to broach larger social issues in your work, but when you choose to do so, avoid narrative. Instead, create scenes which demonstrate how your characters’ lives are touched by these issues.
NEW!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.