Writing About Families

The many layered dynamics of a family offer a rich background for writers to draw from when telling a story. With the power of story, writers can help young readers deal with a variety of family issues in such a way that it empowers the reader to be able to cope with their own similar situation or have empathy for those living vastly different lives.
Al Forrie, publisher of Thistledown shares his definition of a family story. “A family story has at its core altruism. When people (not necessarily connected by genetics or ancestry) are bound together in reliance and trust a family story emerges.”
Harrison Demchick, editor at Bancroft Press, agrees. “A family story, I think, is one with togetherness at its core. A family story doesn’t have to be one with a mother, a father, and 2.3 kids. It doesn’t even have to feature a biological family at all, although it usually does. But central to a family story is the notion of having other people to rely upon, versus an individual making it on his own.”
“A family story can involve any range of family members, just two or a whole slew!,” adds Samantha McFerrin, editor at Harcourt Children’s Books.
How is writing about a family the same or different than writing about an individual?
“Stories about individuals explore a fundamental change or realization in the main character,” explains Abigail Samoun, editor at Tricycle Press. “A family story is about the emotions, tensions, and conflict that exist between a child character and a family member.”
“It’s a very different dynamic, says Harrison. “A family story is very focused on the relationships between various characters—the way they relate to one another and the way that changes over time. This isn’t to say a story about an individual lacks that—relationships between characters are fundamental to almost every story—but when writing about a family, that dynamic is decidedly more central.”
“In a story about an individual you can have a very character-driven story, which doesn’t mean a family story can’t have a strong lead character,” says McFerrin. “I have one on my list called Harry Hungry! by Steven Salerno that involves a mom and a dad but also a very hungry baby who steals the spotlight. But, as in Harry Hungry!, mom and dad—and whatever other family members are involved—have to come to life, too. In other words, if the story has a strong child character, in order to be a family story, the adults in it still need to be unique and well-crafted.”
At what point does writing about a family become THE story instead of background to the story?
“Sometimes,” says Renne Ting, publisher of Shen’s Books, “it’s fairly obvious when an author has decided that the family is the story. In these stories, the main character’s identity is shaped by his or her family situation, and most action revolves around family. More often, however, the family is another character in the book, playing its own role. For example, In the book Cora Cooks Pancit, the main character Cora’s personality comes through very clearly through her actions and the illustrations, but her relationship with her mother is a distinct entity from her own character; the interaction between the two adds an entirely different layer to the story.”
Samoun adds, “I think it all boils down to the story’s central theme—is this a story where the conflict revolves around the kid character and a member of his or her family? Does it explore family roles and expectations? In many middle-grades and YA novels, the parents are secondary characters who don’t have a principle role in the central conflict. In family stories, the kid’s relationship with a family member is at the forefront.”
“I think family stories that involve issues really bring the whole family into the spotlight,” says McFerrin. “Or when you can’t separate the lead character from his/her family members. In one story I’m working on the girl character is strong and paving her own way, but when she finds out the truth about her dad, it turns her world upside down. You can’t really separate out the dad, so it’s a family story. In another story I’m working on, there are two friends who have to deal with some tough stuff, the adults in that story support them, but you could remove the adults and pretty much still have the friends’ story. So that’s not all that much a family story.”
What does reading about a family with problems offer children whose family dynamics might be considered “normal” and vice versa?
“Well, every family has problems,” says Harrison, “whether in literature or in reality, because life is never perfect. So reading about a family with problems gives children characters and situations to relate to, even if those characters and situations aren’t remotely identical to their own. It lets them know that every family is kind of weird, and most of those are normal just the same.”
Forrie continues that thought. “A psychologist or sociologist would have a very different answer to this question than a publisher. If we learn anything from the stories that writers offer us then it is best to remember Leo Tolstoy’s line: /All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” /Which story about family might a child find valuable likely depends upon the family in which they find themselves.”
“Part of what literature does,” says Samoun, “is open us up to experiences that, given our social and class setting, we might not otherwise have access to. One of the things reading fiction seems to do is develop young readers’ sense of compassion and that’s incredibly important.”
Ting adds, “Reading about different types of families is very much like reading multicultural books: it opens your eyes to possibilities of other ways of living and other types of people. Children in traditional nuclear families can gain an understanding of what it feels like to be a part of a non-traditional family. It can help them relate to kids in similar situations that they might know. For those who have problems similar to those in books, it helps immeasurably just to know that they are not alone.”
The definition of family has changed over the years. How is that reflected in what is published now?
“There has been a huge amount of change in recent years in the depiction of families in children’s literature,” explains Ting. “First came the stories about separated families and single-parent families. Now, we’re seeing a surge in books about multi-racial families, the fastest growing demographic in America. There has also been a recent increase in books depicting gay and lesbian parents. The next step in publishing, which we’re beginning to see, is when these non-traditional families become the background to the story and not THE story. I’m reminded of Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata, which is about a single-parent Japanese-American family. In that particular book, the single-parent aspect of family was the central issue, and their Japanese-American identity was secondary. It was a very interesting choice of emphasis, telling in its deliberate shift of focus.”
“Tricycle actually published a book some time ago about what defines a family,” says Samoun. “Who’s In a Family? is still in print after many years. It illustrates some of the many varied forms a family can take—whether a couple and their doted-on pets, or a kid raised by his grandmother, or a same-sex family. It ends with this very simple definition: “Who’s in a family? The people who love you the most!” Tricycle is really interested in stories that reflect the reality of American kids’ lives. Many kids don’t live in a traditional nuclear family. Why shouldn’t they also see their experience reflected in the books they read? I think it’s exciting that authors can now feel free to explore a broad spectrum of family life in America.”
Is the publishing market shifting more toward or away from “unconventional” families?
“I think it’s shifting toward unconventional families,” says McFerrin, “because that market has broadened some. There’s always room for new stories about different families. But there’s also always going to be room for strong, fresh mama/baby/love books. Harcourt published on called Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. It’s so simple and so perfect and so beautifully paced.”
Ting agrees. “I think it’s definitely shifting toward unconventional families, especially in books for older readers. As our society shifts, so too do the books. I think books are following society’s demographics pretty closely, albeit with a delay. Already, it seems like the percentage of single-parent families depicted in books is catching up with the actual percentage of those families in America. I can see that multi-racial families are following suit. We are still years away from true parity, but the trend is there.”
“The market exploits what writers offer and large publishers promote,” adds Forrie. “Are writers shifting their stories to focus on unconventional families? Yes and no. For those who want to sell well, they will be influenced by what they perceive as market demand or what their publishers believe it to be ; for many others they will write what their muse directs them to. Of course, the writer’s “family” experience will likely play into both if they are writing stories about families. What influences any shift in the writing mark is the power of the internet experience, and the gravity of movies and television in which unconventionality is profitably exploited.”
While families may change in shape, size, and specific details, the heart of a family remains the same and stories centered on family will undoubtedly remain popular for quite some time to come.
“Families are important subjects for books for young readers and they make for great, great stories,” says McFerrin. “I hope the fresh ones and the authentic ones find their way to publication.”
Harrison adds, “The fact of the matter is, there are so few hard and fast rules when it comes to what a particular piece of writing is. My definition of a family story is, in the end, just mine. The important thing is not to use rules like these to guide the path of your writing, because if you set up rules and restrictions for yourself, the work will suffer.
In other words, don’t set out to write a “family story.” Write a story about family and see what happens.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.