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>When Bad Things Happen to Bad Writers

>Commenting on the great reviews garnered by Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s Cancer Victim, Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin makes my day:

Just because you lived through something doesn’t mean you should write a book about it. I’m getting more and more weary with this “tell your story” bullshit. Yes, tell your story… to your grandkids or your nephew or your cat. The world at large doesn’t need to know about it unless you’re particularly good at the telling.

I haven’t read Cancer Victim so can’t comment re, but Crispin’s sentiment is one I often find echoing in my head when reading refugee, war, and Holocaust memoirs for children. Too often, I think, they proceed from the assumption that having lived through horrific circumstances is justification enough for publication of memories of same, but it isn’t. Nor is moral righteousness, or even heroism. (One of the most interesting Holocaust stories I’ve heard was from Maurice Sendak, who had met an old lady who as a child had performed in the original Theresienstadt production of Brundibar. Her most insistent memory–the one that still kept her up nights, he said–was about how she didn’t get the plum part in the performance that she wanted.) It isn’t the historical significance or the moral imperative of a book that gets it read. The testimony has to be compelling.

If not fun. I felt a distinct attack of moral seasickness this morning when I read a forthcoming pop-up book about the Irish famine (Life on a Famine Ship by Duncan Crosbie, published by Barron’s in January ’07.) Lift-the-flap and watch the farmhouse get wrecked! Lift-the-flap to see the corpse dropped over the side of the ship! Despite the protestations of Fraulein Maria, not everything can be turned into a game.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Walter M. Mayes says:

    >I am reminded of one of the guiding principles of my life–my grandmother’s admonishment, “Just because it happened to you, dear, does not necessarily make it interesting.”

    I’m right there with ya, Roger.

  2. >Thank you for this! I couldn’t agree more. A particular favorite children’s holocaust book is “Rose Blanche” by Roberto Innocenti. A piece of fiction that sparks conversation without being an overwraught, “I-lived-through-it” memoir. With Marion Blumenthal Lazan’s brilliant “Four Perfect Pebbles,” how many more such books are necessary?

  3. >Good grief, a pop-up book about the Irish famine? It’s just wrong. The increasing number of inconsequential books written about serious & important subject does serious disservice to the subject at hand.

    I wonder about the person who agreed it was a good idea than the one who suggested it. Someone had to give it “thumbs up.”


  4. Roger Sutton says:

    >Ys Doug, I would hesitate to say that one or two, or a hundred books about the Holocaust were enough. The point is not that the subject–or any subject–has been amply addressed; it’s instead that each book needs a reason for being. The significance of the subject is not enough.

  5. >”I wonder about the person who agreed it was a good idea than the one who suggested it. Someone had to give it ‘thumbs up.'”

    It’s even worse than you think, Lynn. More than one person had to give it a thumbs up. I figure at least five or six people had to.

  6. >“More than one person had to give it a thumbs up.’

    Sigh, I was afraid of that. Guess it helps with the culpability and finger pointing if a whole group says yes.

  7. >It is reassuring to read that someone thinks a book has to have more reason to exist than a topic or sales potential, which seem to be what drives the publication of many books today. Your candor is refreshing.

    I am a writer who works with many young authors. A few years ago one of my ongoing groups wrote an article with me for VOYA. The part of it that did not get published was their candid remarks about the state of what is being published, and what is being chosen for them to read as literature in school. They said that they were tired of gratitious violence and sex, and sick of books chosen for their relevancy to a politically correct agenda. They really wanted to read things for the sake of the literature. Interesting coming mainly from middle school kids.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Sallie Lowenstein

  8. >Indeed.
    It took me a little while, but I knew something was wrong. Though Cancer Victim seemed right…the title is actually Cancer Vixen.
    Having spent some time recently as a cancer victim, I can say right here and right now that the word vixen was never in my vocabulary. There’s nothing that says exhausted, cranky and nauseous like vixen, is there?
    And I can say right here and right now that no one, even those sweet people who look concerned and nodded while I vented about it, ever wanted to read a book about any of it.
    However, I have not read CV, so maybe it is fabu.

  9. Roger Sutton says:

    >Where’s an editor when you need one? 😉

    See you tomorrow, Robin–(tommorrow night is our swanky-pants reception for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, for which Robin was a judge). I hope I spelled everything all right.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >A pop-up book about the Irish famine sounds nuts . . . but then, how nuts do you think this idea sounded: song-and-dance versions of OLIVER TWIST and LES MISERABLES?

    It’s all in the execution.

  11. rindawriter says:

    >Yes, there must be STORY…and I would put that word in in a row of flashing rainbow lights if I could…along with a loudspeaker shouting it nonstop!

    I do think that an edge of humor is an element that is missing in many “difficult” story subjects, but this humor must be a humor that is the right kind of humor, a humor that mingles compassion and humility and insight and empowers greater empathy in the reader. I think of James Herriot’s handling of some very difficult vet cases as a good example. Or, as alwyas, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

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