Friday, February 12, 2010

When Your Book Offends a Reader

Sooner or later it will happen to you. Regardless of how innocent or innocuous you think your writing is, someone will take offense at something you've written. You could, of course, try to avoid the use of certain words, phrases (or even whole scenes) that you think might cause trouble. (And I'm not even thinking about the obvious, like swear words or words relating to certain body parts.) But is it desirable or even possible to avoid all controversy in your writing? I think not.

If certain words, phrases, and scenes are integral to your story, I don't believe you should avoid using them just because you're afraid someone might object. At the same time, it's good to be sensitive to the age and maturity level of your readers. The problem is, we don't all agree on what's appropriate for children of certain ages. And words can be received and interpreted in ways you don't expect.

So write your story in the way you think best. If your editor has concerns over something you've written, she'll let you know. Make the change if you don't think it will hurt the story, but not if you think it will. Go with your gut. And if your book does offend someone, well, that's life. But maybe you'll have the opportunity, as I did, to respond and explain why you made the word choices you did. If you're lucky, that reader might just be open to changing his or her view.

Dear Ms. Williams,

My daughter happens to really love reading about fairies and I have
indulged her with as many books as she would like on the subject and yours are among them. I was reading her Poppy and the Vanishing Fairy at bedtime and I am deeply disappointed that you would include the "Brownies" as fairy servants. I am confounded and deeply disturbed that such an obvious slavery reference would be published in 2008 of all years.
I write to you as a concerned mother and would very much like to hear your perspective on how you came to create these characters. Please explain to me why you think I should not find this offensive.

Dear Ms. F.,

According to the research I did on fairy folk while writing my books, the term "brownies" originated in Scotland, possibly used for inhabitants of Britain before the arrival of the
Celts. Because my publisher was also concerned that some readers might confuse the term as a reference to slavery, I described "Bink" as having reddish-brown hair and freckles. (I even experimented with having him talk with a Scottish lilt, but we decided the alterations in his speech might prove too difficult for young readers.) It's unfortunate that there's no illustration of Bink in the "Poppy" book (I just flipped through it to check!) because the illustration of him in Book #1: Daisy and the Magic Lesson, clearly shows that he's white (p.36). In fairy lore, brownies love doing household chores, but dislike others interfering with their work, something I used as part of the plot line in Book #3: Rose and the Delicious Secret. I hope this explanation helps and that your daughter continues to enjoy the books.

Dear Ms. Williams,

This is so helpful~ thank you. I was unaware that there is a long-standing history of Fairy Folk nor their origins and I am very satisfied with your answer. So interesting!


Leslie said...

What a helpful perspective - with example correspondence - to share with writers and creative folk everywhere. Your example is especially interesting, and a good teaching moment to boot. I am particularly fond of Celtic lore and folk tales in general, and just this evening told my two cats the story of "The Cat on the Hob." We were all sitting on the bed together, cozy, and ready for a tale of otherworldly things. Brownies love their chance to be productive in the household so much that should they be discovered, they will never visit that home again. Often their surprising labors of love are a reward that a person living there has earned unawares with a true heart and deeds - appropriate to Valentines' Day (I wish you and your readers a very happy one, by the way). Their attitude toward service shows just how free from constraint they are. Very similar, now that I think of it, to the writers to whom you give your wise advice.

SWK said...

Very nicely handled. I have fond memories of my early days working at Random House--one of my jobs was to maintain the "objections" file of nutty stuff people said about various books. Would have loved to have had your lovely example to share with upset authors.

Suzanne Williams said...

Thanks, SWK. My editor for that series, Rosemary Brosnan, liked my reply, too. Since I used to be an elementary school librarian, and had handled book challenges, the letter didn't really upset me. The writer was very open. And she showed her sense of humor in a subsequent email when she thanked me for "defusing" her "fairy outrage."

Anonymous said...

As I read through your blog post I was remembering back through each book in the Fairy Blossoms series (we adore each and every one of them, and they are actually the reason we picked up the Goddess Girls books)... I couldn't think of anything that could be found the least bit offensive. LOL Imagine my surprise when it was over the Brownies. ;)

Suzanne Williams said...

TD: It was a surprise to me too! :-)