Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Heavy Baggage

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.

White squirrelSome­times 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.


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