Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tackling Tough Topics with Shannon Wiersbitzky

Here’s another namelos guest, Shannon Wiersbitzky, author of The Summer of Hammers and Angels, talking about how to handle tough topics in your writing. To see previous namelos posts, click on the headline banner above and then scroll down.

Tackling Tough Topics

As it turns out, many of the authors at namelos have tackled tough or potentially controversial issues and I expect you’ll continue to see tough topics on the list in the future. Between the five of us, our novels include characters that are dealing with child abuse, premature death, rape, war, and questions of faith.

For writers, tackling issues like these through writing may cause you to wonder. How many kids experience what I want to write about? Will they be able to relate to my character? Will the topic turn kids, teachers, or parents off? Will they understand the references to the topic?

With so many questions, where do you start?

Assess whether or not the topic is critical to the story
As you consider your story, ask yourself how and why the topic comes into play. If it is central to your story line and to your character’s struggles and development, then by all means, write on! If it came to mind because an editor at a recent conference noted they’re looking for books about “issues” and you think you can “work it in” to your current novel, then maybe think twice.

Let your character(s) ask questions.
With any tough topic, there are likely multiple viewpoints that exist. Consider sharing those viewpoints in your story as well. All characters won’t have the same perspective. That is where conflict arises! Let the reader mull over each new idea and come to their own conclusions about what they believe. Great book discussions will ensue.

In an interview with NPR, author Jodi Picoult discussed how she writes about tough topics. “I always look at it sort of like the facets of a diamond. You’ve got to illuminate each one, and then let the reader decide what’s the brightest one and why. My job isn’t to tell them which is the brightest one. It’s just to illuminate every single facet.”

Respect the topic.
In my novel, The Summer of Hammers and Angels, the main character deals with questions of faith. I’ve spent time in all sorts of churches. Growing up, church was always part of my life. I mainly attended Lutheran and Presbyterian services with my parents, but during the summer, when I stayed with my grandparents, church had a whole different feel to it. On Sundays we were either at the Church of God or the Baptist Church. There was always singing, arms raised when the spirit moved, and shouts of Amen or Hallelujah or That’s right, when the pastor said something the congregation agreed with. As a kid I loved attending church where everyone got to be loud. 

The church in my novel is a mish-mash of them all. The point wasn’t to portray one right way of doing things, or conversely to mock a way of believing. The story is meant to convey the way things happen in the fictional town of Tucker’s Ferry, West Virginia, in this one particular church community.

Be honest about the plot, the setting, and the characters.
Don’t gussy up or gloss over what might be a tough scene. Dive in, let your character, and therefore your reader, experience whatever conflict, crisis, or pain may be taking place. As a writer this means you’ll have to go to that place too…which isn’t always easy.

In Alina Klein’s Rape Girl, there is a scene that struck me as being completely honest as I read it. During the scene, the main character is receiving a rape exam.
“I kept drawing my knees together and Dr. Buckner kept prying them gently apart. All the while he picked up foot-long swabs and slick metal devices of torture, inserting and removing them without pause.
I felt a tear drip down my temple toward my hair. Mom quietly brushed it away.”

Make it believable.
When writing about tough topics, characters might find the road to happiness, they may come to a tragic end, or a million options in between. There isn’t one right answer. But whatever the answer, through the writing, readers must be absolutely convinced that it is the only outcome that could have occurred in that moment.

In No-Name Baby by Nancy Bo Flood, the main character, Sophie, is grappling with the early delivery of her baby brother. The entire family is stressed and it shows.
““Sophie, please, no questions. Not tonight.” Aunt Rae reached for the stack of cloths.
“Let me help.”
“No!” her aunt snapped.
A loud moan came from upstairs. Then another. Papa flung open the door, his eyes wide. Aunt Rae crossed herself, murmuring, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have mercy.”
A long, awful cry. A scream.
Papa bolted up the stairs. Aunt Rae was right behind.
Sophie couldn’t move.”

We need writers who are willing to take on life’s toughest topics. If they’ve touched us deeply enough to push us to write a book, then there most certainly are kids who would be drawn to these books and benefit from reading them.

Shannon Wiersbitzky wrote her first book in elementary school. Unfortunately she illustrated it too. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons. The Summer of Hammers and Angels, about a young girl who learns the power of love and community, is her first novel.


  1. Which books do you remember reading when you were a kid? The ones that have stuck with me over many years are the books with tough topics. Even the plots that include fantasy elements such as CHARLOTTE'S WEB deal with difficult issues. Light entertainment is fine and easy to find in today's culture. But there are young readers who are hungry for stories with substance.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Shannon.

  2. Thanks, Shannon. This was a really interesting look at an interesting topic.

  3. I am one of those rare teachers who has controversial books on my shelves. Why? Let me tell you a brief story that will explain my answer. I reivewed the book "Want to Go Private" by Sarah Littman. I took it to school and had it on my desk. A student asked if it was good and if I would recommend it. I told her yes. Now you need to understand I teach 6th grade. For books like this I usually require parent permission. She took the book, filled out the card and slipped in onto my desk. I didn't realize until the next day when I received a call from her father that she had taken it. Dad was upset and didn't want her to know anything about sex at that time in her life. However, another student borrowed the book with parent permission. Then I got a letter from his parents. They had been trying to get across to him how careful he had to be on the Internet. They read the book after their son and it opened the door for a conversation with him. Another mother used it when they caught their daughter online with an unknown 28 year old male. After reading the book with her she deleted her account. We need these controversial books to help not only our students, but often to help the parents open the conversation. I don't ask permission from my principal. They don't purchase books for my shelves. In his mind, I am the expert. Keep writing those types of books. Those of us who want to help will always find creative ways to put them on our shelves.

    1. Thanks for the post Sandra! It is a great point...sometimes parents aren't unwilling to talk, they just need the nudge to start the conversation.

  4. Great stories, Sandra! Kids need books that offer insight into real life, and parents are naïve if they think they can control everything that kids learn.