Tuesday, June 12, 2012

No Happy, Neat Ending Here

I had planned to write about the Major League Baseball box scores that appear in newspapers and how they helped me as a kid to really focus on a subject, read better and gather in details, and even improved my math skills (you have to learn to work out percentages, for instance).  But I changed my topic after reading the Room For Debate column in the Sunday Review section of yesteday's NY Times.
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The question up for debate was the future of literature and a number of writers were asked to respond.  The one writer response featured in the paper was from YA novelist Matt de la Pena (you can find the full debate at: nytimes.com/roomfordebate).   De la Pena said that readers want more than ever to avoid serious, sometimes depressing subjects, that they want to escape and not have to ponder potentially upsetting or thought-provoking ideas or opinions.
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The column caught my attention because my wife, Alison Blank, and I were talking about this just the other night.  We have a book coming out in July called Invincible Microbe (it has a subtitle, but it would take up too much of the page).  The book has already gotten three very nice reviews (from Kirkus, VOYA, and the Horn Book), as well as some attention on blogs.  Most of the blog comments are very positive, but several stood out because they felt the closing chapters were too negative and that they didn't feel the book was appropriate for young readers.  What's so negative about that closing chapters?  Well, the book is a history of tuberculousis and ends with a discussion of supergerms (how M. tuberculosis keeps changing so that it resists more and more of the medications aimed at killing it).  We suggest that we'll never be able to actually eliminate the little bugger; that our best shot is to contain it with eternal vigilence and eternal research.
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Clearly, this isn't the happy, neat ending some adult folks wanted.  But aren't we supposed to be telling kids the truth?  And the truth, sad as it might be, is that bacteria and viruses are constantly changing in order to survive.  It's the way nature has always worked and we're not going to wish it away.  Though I guess some can wish away the book that carries this message.
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The weirest part of this is that kids don't seem particularly bothered by this sort of information.  They're fascinated by it.  They want to know how invisible things like germs work, what they do inside humans, how scientists are trying to combat them, and what governments, health organizations and other entities (such as private busnesses) are doing to protect us.  Kids even seem comfortable with the notion that we very smart humans might never actually figure out how to beat this nasty little germ.
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Ah, well, I have great faith in kids and their ability to absorb and make sense out of complex material even if some of their elders can't.  But just to be safe and to insure future sales, Alison and I are doing research now on a light-hearted and easy to accept subject that we hope might someday make for perfect summer reading.  Yes, we're learning everything we can about leprosy.                  

9 comments:

shelf-employed said...

I can't wait to read your new book - happy ending not required. Though I must say, I hope you're your baseball post is on the back burner and I'll read it later in the season. Lisa

creatingcuriouskids said...

Jim, my preschooler was just fascinated with Melissa Stewart's "Do People Really Have Tiny Insects Living in Their Eyelashes." I think all people -- curious people at least -- want to know everything about everything, no matter what the ending.

Caroline McAlister said...

Absolutely fascinating! This fits in with the debate in the Wall Street Journal last year about YA fiction being too dark. But you are writing about science, and there are objective truths you need to get across. Bravo for sticking to your guns and telling the truth.

Myra Zarnowski said...

Not only do children want to know the truth, they need to know the truth. How can they begin to deal with pressing issues in the world if we feed them incorrect information? I have read your book and I was interested to see that you came to the same conclusion that Jim Giblin did when he wrote about plague. Those darn germs keep changing and adapting. Interesting connection for us teachers! As a teacher I want to say, you need to keep writing about the truth as you see it. Not every story for children has to be a "happily ever after" story.

Myra Zarnowski said...

Not only do children want to know the truth, they need to know the truth. How can they begin to deal with pressing issues in the world if we feed them incorrect information? I have read your book and I was interested to see that you came to the same conclusion that Jim Giblin did when he wrote about plague. Those darn germs keep changing and adapting. Interesting connection for us teachers! As a teacher I want to say, you need to keep writing about the truth as you see it. Not every story for children has to be a "happily ever after" story.

Jim Murphy said...

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments. Alison and I are hoping that most readers (and reviewers) feel much the same way you do -- that a not very tidy "ending" is more thought-provoking for young readers than confusing or scary. Fortunately, we have very supportive editors!

Andy Boyles said...

Let's hope your critics will not let the matter go, but keep thinking about it. The wish for a 'happy ending' led to the impulse to try to obliterate every germ, which led us to overuse antibiotics . . . and created the superbugs.

Dorothy Patent said...

Belated comments--and know/remember that those changes over time the bugs make are called EVOLUTION!! Kids absolutely MUST believe in the truth of evolution!
Secondly, folks interested in TB might want to read the new adult book, "Experiment Eleven," by Peter Pringle. It's a history of Streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against TB and discusses my the work my dad, H. Corwin Hinshaw, did with developing Streptomycin treatment.

Miss Young & Mrs. Ingersoll said...

I'm looking forward to reading your new books! I love the history you've covered. Maybe the "scary" is the fact that we have seen (for the most part) the results of those stories and now in these books you are telling us there isn't an ending yet. That can be scary, but if you inspire kids and develop their curiousity, then there is also hope.

Lastly, I'm looking forward to reading your text on leoprasy. I've been fascinated by how that disease has been handled through the centuries after reading Molokai. What a powerful story for me. I hope to visit that island some day.

Angie