I saw Into the Woods this weekend. That is one of my favorite musicals, largely because I love the way several fairy tales are woven together into one larger story. But I also love the powerful message given at the end: “Careful the tale you tell—that is the spell. Children will listen.”
The point, of course, is that children learn from everything they see and hear, from watching you and what you do—and from the stories you tell them. While most people will agree that tales that praise what we consider “good values” such as independence, compassion, love, etc. are good tales to tell, there is an ongoing backlash against what many see as “dark” YA—tales that tackle the gritty, painful issues like abuse, rape, drugs, etc., that no one likes to talk about. There is always a push to ban such books, to demonize them.
I write YA and middle grade. I do not write the dark stuff—it is not what I am called to write. But those books, as ugly and frightening as the topics may be, are important. Why? Because of another central theme of Into the Woods—no one is alone. A beautiful and poignant song, “No One Is Alone” reminds the characters that they cannot act without affecting others, and that even when they feel alone, they are not: “You move just a finger, say the slightest word, something’s bound to linger—be heard.”
And THAT is the point of dark YA. As scary and ugly as those topics are, the reality is that some child is living that life, that horror. Those books let that child be heard, lets them have a voice. Those books let those kids know they are not alone. That they matter. That whatever the horror of their lives, it is survivable. That they and their lives are redeemable.
And sometimes, knowing you are not alone is the difference between finding the strength to go forward and ending it all in a final, irrevocable solution.
Even Into the Woods knows this to be true, and that is a large part of its power and appeal. The second act is dark. I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen it, but the black-and-white, happily-ever-after world of fairy tales is invaded by the painful gray of reality, where sometimes even the best choice is a bad choice. In the darkness that descends on the fairy tale world, the characters learn that together they can overcome everything—and that everything has consequences, effects far beyond what they can see.
As a writer for children, I am always aware of the tale I tell. Many of the books in my life that profoundly changed the way I saw the world were books I read as a middle grade or YA reader. I want to create visions that will let children see a world different from their own. That will open their minds and make them think. That will help them create a better future for themselves and our world. I want to tell tales of hope, of joy, of peace.
Children will listen.