Beware Sentimental Tripe

Especially in times of troubles, the desire to help is overwhelming and, of course, a writer’s best way of helping is with a story.

However, it is important to remember that readers, especially child readers, bring their own baggage along to any story. The message a writer thinks she is imparting is not necessarily the one the reader hears.

Years ago I wrote a picture book artfully disguised as a folk tale. It was metaphorically the story of my life and how I met my husband. Called The Girl Who Loved the Wind, It was about a merchant’s daughter who leaves her doting (and claustrophobic) home, where she is surrounded by very real walls, and sails off with the wind “into the ever-changing world.” About twenty years after the book had been published, I received a letter from a nurse who cared for desperately ill children. She had read the story to one child who was dying, but being held to the earth by her terrified and adoring parents. The nurse told me that hours after she read the book to the child, the child had “let go,” and gone beyond the walls of her world, and into the next. She felt the story had served the needs of the little girl.

Now I certainly had not written the story for that purpose. What story I could have written for her, I do not know. But not that one. Probably some smarmy, sentimental, anxious bit of tripe.

So I say, be very very careful when trying to write (or read) a book for healing purposes. It may not be the story you think it is. We read to find ourselves, not the author.

Jane Yolen, known as America’s Hans Christian Andersen (Newsweek) has over 230 books published for children and adults.