More than Just a Thing with Feathers
Carley Lee explores hope in middle-grade fiction.
What even is ‘hope’?
Have you ever tried to catch a pigeon? I caught one in a coffee shop once. In its bid to feast on croissant crumbs, the poor bird found itself stuck inside, surrounded by flapping humans. After several attempts at lunging and grasping, I finally managed to corner it behind a chair and capture it. As the pigeon struggled in my arms, I was surprised at the power of its pinned wings pressing against my fingers – I barely got out the door before it broke free of my hands, escaping back into the wilderness of Oxford’s city centre.
Understanding the idea of ‘hope’ in middle-grade fiction has felt strangely similar to catching that pigeon. What at first seemed like a straightforward task turned into mental acrobatics that had me lunging and grasping at a concept that does not want to be pinned down. And in the few moments I did manage to wrap the fumbling fingers of my mind around it, hope quickly broke free again, morphing into something larger, more powerful, and much more complex than I anticipated. I came to understand another facet of Emily Dickinson’s poetic metaphor. But I did not give up. I followed hope into the wilderness and observed it in its natural habitat.
The children’s publishing world speaks about hope like a magic spell, the X-factor of a middle-grade book. Children’s writers speak about it in terms of responsibility and narrative structure; and many agents see it as non-negotiable.
But what is hope, exactly? Some say it is the promise that everything will be all right; others, that it is confidence in the future. Author Katherine Rundell describes it as a “belief that the world has so many strangenesses and possibilities that giving up would be a mistake.” Psychologist CR Snyder uses an equation to define it: “a sense of successful agency” plus “pathways”. Philosopher Josef Pieper describes it as status viatoris – “the absence of fulfilment and the orientation toward fulfilment.” In other words: hope is being ‘one on the way.’ And author Katherine Paterson describes it as “a yearning, rooted in reality, that pulls us toward the radical biblical version of a world where truth and justice and peace do prevail.”
But do we really need equations, theology, and Latin to help us understand what hope is in children’s books? As complicated as these definitions may seem at first, they are all connected. They each describe hope moving us in some way. Hope takes us forward, pointing us towards fulfilment and possibility, even in the face of darkness.
More than a happy ending
If hope and happy endings were synonymous, we would have to answer the question, ‘is hope important in middle-grade fiction?’ with a resounding ‘no.’ We know that children don’t always need everything to work out perfectly in the end.
A terribly sad book still has the power to move us forward and point us towards fulfilment and possibility. A conclusion that forces happiness would undermine all of the hard work that goes into constructing a good narrative. Moreover, it might misconstrue reality in ways that are inappropriate or unjust.
Hope thrives in the space between reality and dreams. It’s in this space that we are stretched and challenged to grow; we move forward, toward possibility. Our characters are challenged in the dark places just like we are – in the bleak and frightening moments that life throws at us. It doesn’t matter whether that challenge comes in a magical world, or in the council house down the road, or even in the face of a global pandemic: to seek hope in dark places is wholly human.
This raises a more profound question about how hope is present within the very structure of storytelling and its mediums. Professor David Almond suggests that “the creation of a book is in itself optimistic – the book itself is an act of hope because it’s a thing created and shared.” When agents read a submission, they hope that it will catch the eye of a publisher; and when a publisher buys a manuscript, they hope that it will go on to sell. And where did this hopeful process begin? With the author’s own hope that their story will move readers.
Indeed, hope reflects a shared value among publishers, agents and authors alike. But why do we believe that this value is not only an acceptable one to include in middle-grade books, but a necessary one? A short answer might be that something within us longs for hope – even insists upon it. And for good reason. Psychological studies have demonstrated correlations between hope and mental health. In her own study on the subject, Michelle Valle states that “higher levels of hope [in children] would predict increased life satisfaction and decreased psychopathology.”
But where does storytelling fit into this picture? Well, research shows that when we connect with a story, parts of our brains related to a particular emotion or action light up, and our neurons start firing as if we were engaged in the activity ourselves. And when stories engage our brains, they are, as Philip Pullman puts it, “building patterns of behaviour and expectation into [our] moral understanding.” Author Natasha Farrant puts it even more emphatically: children “live the books they love, and these books offer tremendous opportunity to learn about love and loss and everything in between. They will shape their young readers and make them who they are.” This is our burden as authors, whether we realise it or not: we are playing a part in shaping young readers’ perspectives on the world and on themselves.
A writer’s responsibility?
In that coffee shop, I was not required to catch the pigeon. There was no moral responsibility for me to get up from my pot of tea and flail about trying to corner a trapped bird. But as writers, do we have the responsibility to create hopeful stories for our middle-grade readers?
To answer this, I ask another question: how do I want to leave my reader feeling? Would I really want a child closing my book in despair? Hope is to some extent subjective: what’s hopeful for me isn’t necessarily hopeful for you. I can’t control the way my stories are received, but I can tell the story in the right way. In the words of Professor David Almond: “When we’re writing for young people, it comes out with a sense of hope because we have a sense of this audience.”
When I write, I hope on behalf of 11-year-old Carley. I write hoping that she will grow up feeling like she can take on the world; hoping that she will believe in her own stories; hoping that she will keep moving forward, towards possibility and fulfilment. Because that’s what books did for me when I was that 11-year-old girl.
And now, here I am, all grown up – that girl who caught a pigeon in a coffee shop because she hoped she could set it free. And she did.
Follow Carley for more wonderful snippets on Twitter, @_CarleyLee
Farrant, N. (2020) ‘Writing about love and loss for children’, Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2020. London: Bloomsbury, 173.
Paterson, K. (1988) ‘CHILDREN’S BOOKS; Hope Is More Than Happiness. New York Times. Available at: www.nytimes.com/1988/12/25/books/children-s-books-hope-is-more-than-happiness.html
Pieper, J. (1997) Faith, Hope, Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
Pullman, P. (2017) Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling. Oxford: David Fickling Books.
Rundell, K. (ed.) (2020) The Book of Hopes. London: Literacy Trust. Available at: literacytrust.org.uk/family-zone/9-12/book-hopes/
Snyder, C. (2000) Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measure, and Applications. Cambridge MA: Academic Press.
Valle, M., et al. (2006)) ‘An analysis of hope as a psychological strength’, Journal of School Psychology, 44, 393-406.