A little while back I decided to critically reread all my own fiction books – most of which were written 5 to 15 years ago – to be able to blog about the topics with a fresh perspective. Despite Soup and Bread being only just over two years old, I decided to include it, not so much to re-evaluate the contents, but the way to approach potential readers, because it deals with a very complex topic.
The ability to grasp that complexity is not age or diploma related, but depends on the personality and personal experience of the reader, and for this book that is important, because the protagonist is only eleven.
Imagine that your child is being bullied at school – and assume you know about it, which is not often the case – and you decide to help them by buying them a children’s book that tells of a child who was bullied, but after an event in which they must stand up for themselves or join in with the action, they suddenly have lots of friends. Almost all books about bullying have that kind of plot.
But what message does such a story give your child, who has no doubt tried to be accepted already. They’ve tried to fit in and join the actions; they’ve probably tried to change their wardrobe or the way they talked or their hobbies. Maybe they’ve even changed schools already and each time they no doubt tried to stand up for themselves. What message does that story tell your child other than that they are not trying hard enough? The same scenario happens in many books (not all) that deal with eating disorders and other mental health problems.
So why buy that book? Why not buy a book that takes the side of the victim; a book that tells them that they have the right to live and be themselves, just like everybody else?
The answer is that the only stories available are those that tell of simple solutions or focus on superficial and observable traits without addressing the real causes, and so for advice books for parents.
My problem, both when writing Soup and Bread and now when trying to market it, is this: The topic is very, very complex, and the message I need to get across to exactly those young people who are struggling with these issues deals with invisible, deeply personal and abstract traits (of which actions and observable things are only the result and not the cause) that are experienced by them but cannot be observed by others. Thus, if the school librarian, the teacher, the parent or the bookshop owner do not experience the same issue, they will not make the book available to these readers; they will stick with superficial stories, based on sales figures, yet the people who can grasp it are in the minority.
So what am I to do? Do I simply change my writing to also pick one superficial trait that subliminally blames the victim, so I can make money?
Should I stop writing for minorities, because most people don’t get it?
Should black writers have stopped writing for black children? Or should other ethnic minorities not be mentioned in fiction? Should women writers have stopped writing for gender equality? Should gay writers have never portrayed homosexuals?
Most readers today will answer “no” to those questions, but will dismiss personality differences as unimportant, for the exact same reason as all other minorities were at one or another time dismissed.
So how do I get through to them?
My solution in the story is to relay these personality differences through the experiences of young people, who are not expected to understand such issues, and which makes it easier to explain them, while emphasizing that understanding them and dealing with them is not something that can be learned, but something that needs to be experienced.
Told in the first person present, which gives the story momentum, the protagonist, Vonnie, is a healthy girl, who is not herself bullied, but only a bystander. With her, the reader meets other children, all with serious problems that are in one way or another related to food or to bullying. Together the children learn to deal with their problems and to stop blaming superficial causes, while relating the abstract emotional complexities through comparisons with more concrete issues. For example, the children play with bubble blowers to explain what interpretation of abstract words or concepts is like and they compare personality traits to the hormones in injections, which cannot be seen from the outside, because the liquid looks like just water. They learn to understand personality needs by comparing them to wearing glasses; a child that does not need glasses cannot see better through the glasses made for someone else.
They also get to do a presentation at school and they use fun fair mirrors to show that the outside (looks) of a person can easily change, but not who they are inside; that the bullies may have pretty faces, but they are ugly inside, and that is what their personality is like.
In short, the book helps make the abstract and very difficult to understand, but nonetheless real and vital aspects of human nature, more palatable and in doing so, hopes to initiate a change of attitude towards those people who are different.
Would I have changed something, if I had written the book today? Only, possibly, the pacing in the first chapter, which was to set the scene and might be going a bit fast for some readers, but the story soon settles in a steady rhythm that mixes the feelings and observations of the protagonist with the actions and words of those she meets.
Although written for 11-15 year olds, the book will touch adults just the same and the characters in the story each represent different personalities, regardless of age and social position.
Thank you for reading.