by Lisa Bullard
I wrote in “The Beauty of Roadblocks” about how students sometimes forget to include the critical element of conﬂict in their stories.
Sometimes I’m faced with a diﬀerent problem: a kid will include painful, intense conﬂict—something that is clearly based on their own experiences. Some young people carry around “heavy baggage,” and a writing road trip can unexpectedly wrench those bags open. In worrisome cases, such as descriptions of abuse, I’ve chosen to follow up with teachers or principals to let them know that a child may need additional support.
Outside of remembering to stamp this heavy baggage “handle with care,” I haven’t come up with a way to prevent the emergence of these more complex emotions and memories. Opening up about the experiences that have moved us in the past can be a powerful and even liberating part of the writing act. But I do want young writers to feel secure when these tough issues emerge, so I often use a tactic that creates a buffer of sorts: we assign these intense experiences to animal characters.
A student might write about the Rabbit family struggling through a divorce. Or the death of Grandpa Eagle. Or the all-white squirrel who is bullied for looking different than his gray squirrel schoolmates. The stories are still emotionally honest—but there’s a protection granted the young writers because the traumatic events are removed from the human world.
This tactic doesn’t work as well for older students—by Grades 5 or 6, some kids think it’s too babyish to write about talking animals. But until that point, you may ﬁnd that a squirrel can come off as surprisingly human when it acts as a stand-in for a character facing one of life’s tough moments.