Wide Angle

How to Write for Children Without Being Condescending

FunJungle author Stuart Gibbs on tackling serious subjects for young readers.

A close-up of a blue-eyed man with a broad smile.
Stuart Gibbs Courtesy of the author.

On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam talked with children’s author Stuart Gibbs about writing mystery novels for young readers. They talked about his shift to writing for kids, how he manages multiple projects, and his relationship with readers. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rumaan Alam: You talk about the complexity of writing a plot that is a crime plot that also talks about the extinction of an animal species. That’s a very serious thing. In the new FunJungle book, which is coming out in May, Bear Bottom, you’re doing a similar thing. There’s the fun plot that animates the story, which is, did this wild bear somehow accidentally steal this very expensive piece of jewelry? But underneath that, there’s a conversation about some serious things: sophisticated ideas about the relationship between white Americans and Native Americans, for example, or the stewardship of America’s public lands. As someone who has read these books to my kid, part of what’s interesting to me is the way you don’t avoid these complex topics. It’s of a piece with not avoiding hard words.

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Stuart Gibbs: Part of what my job entails is talking to my readers and going to schools and talking to students, which I did not know was part of the job when I first said, “Oh yeah, I’d be happy to do a book deal.” It’s this fascinating part of the job, so there’ve been things I’ve noticed. Certainly kids are able to deal with these topics. When I first wrote about poaching and I would talk to kids about it at their school, there was this thing where they could pooh-pooh the idea and be like, “OK, we know that it’s a problem, but we don’t have anything to do with it. We don’t kill rhinos for their horns. We don’t import rhino horns. That’s a problem that other countries have.”

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Then I started thinking, there’s plenty of issues in our country as well. Certainly I’m trying to write for kids all over the Earth, but my target audience is very much the kids I’m talking to here. So you think, something like human-wildlife conflict, where we’re just expanding, wild animals are running out of room and everybody’s great with having grizzly bears until one wanders into your neighborhood, or something like how our national parks were formed. I love our national park system—I think it’s one of the greatest things about this country—but when you start to go: “Ooh, wait a minute. Where did that land come from? People were actually living on it when we declared a national park.” Those are important things, some of which I’ve only discovered in really writing the books myself. When I hit on something like that, I think, “Well, that’s something that kids should know about.” They’re always ready to handle that topic.

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One of the other things that was really notable to me in this new book is, we see a lot of characters who we’ve met before. One of them is this minor character who is an employee of this zoo. He’s the public relations guy. In this book, we understand that he’s gay. It’s never come up before in the context of any of the books, because it’s not necessary for those plots, but something about the plot of Bear Bottom requires the introduction of his partner. There’s something really incredible to me about that. It would have been utterly mind-blowing to me as a child myself reading this when I was 10 in 1987, but in the context of 2021, it’s just the world as it is for young readers. I think that that’s really incredible.

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Thank you. I appreciate that. It certainly has been something that’s been on my mind as I’ve been writing the books. A lot of readers are saying, “When are you going to introduce LGBTQA+ characters?” I do write books that are for middle-grade and therefore not primarily about the relationships of the kids. They may have crushes or things like that, but that’s not what’s driving them. So I’ve thought about how do I work this in? There are several gay couples on our street. My kids don’t think anything of it—that’s just life for them.

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So in this day and age, my protagonist Teddy doesn’t make a big deal of the fact that Pete Thwacker is gay. It’s just like, “Oh, Pete’s here, his husband’s here, and that’s life.” It’s always interesting to me what I’ve gotten the most pushback on from—usually not readers, but parents of readers—and talking about homosexuality is one of them. The other is talking about climate change. What’s very interesting about when people are angry at me about talking about homosexuality, is that generally the way that they phrase it is to say, “I don’t think your readers of this age should know about this.” But when are they supposed to know? You’re usually not supposed to engage somebody on something like this, but every once in a while, somebody will write to me and say, “I’d love to know what you were thinking.” I’ll write back to them and say, “I was thinking I would include this because it exists, and my kids know it exists. It hasn’t affected them adversely in any way. If anything, it’s made them more understanding and compassionate to recognize that all people are pretty much like one another. It doesn’t matter who you love.”

My kids have two dads, so of course that particular mention didn’t hold any interest for [my son] because he wants to know who committed the crime. The only interest he has in reading the story is, “What’s the solution to this particular story?”

Well, that’s what I’m going for there—it should just feel like it’s natural.

To listen to the full interview with Stuart Gibbs, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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