The art of subtlety

Have we lost the art of subtlety? After leaving the movie theater with my husband the other night, I heard a man say, “that was boring. Nothing happened!”

The movie was ANOTHER YEAR and certainly no one goes to a Mike Leigh movie expecting to see car chases, new worlds discovered or buildings blown up.

But nothing happened? Something big and meaningful DID happen.

A friendship between two women was irreparably damaged. One woman behaved in a way that the other woman could not forgive. But the break didn’t happen in a big, explosive Hollywood kind of way. You had to pay attention to what the women said and didn’t say, to the averted eyes and looks, to the body language, to the way the dinner continued even though the change had occurred.

You had to pay attention. And you had to work a little to put the pieces together.

It was a lot like how life is.

I realize that many people go to the movies to be entertained or to escape the daily pressures of work and their lives. Nothing wrong with that. But if we’re constantly, passively entertained by what we watch and read, if we come to expect being told rather than shown, what is lost? And especially for kids?

I’m thinking about all of this because my new middle grade novel, A MILLION MILES FROM BOSTON, will be released next month. MILLION MILES has no mysterious new worlds, wizards or witches, princesses, Greek gods, car chases or burning buildings. It has an old fashioned feel to it, with my main character, Lucy, and her dog exploring the woods, playing hide and seek with the other kids, and digging for clams at the beach.

But there’s much more to it, if you’re willing to look under the surface.

For example, take this passage, from Chapter 7. It comes right after a scene where Lucy and her dad talk about being sad:

I liked puzzles because even if they seemed impossible, eventually you’d put them together. Every summer I did one, and this was the hardest yet, two thousand tiny pieces of an ocean scene. Dad sat next to me and picked up a blue piece. He hummed, studying it. Dad wasn’t sad very often. I wasn’t, either, although sometimes when I thought about Mom – not the fun stuff we usually talked about – I felt something heavy start to fill up this big space inside me. Was it sadness? Maybe it was just that I missed her. I went back to the puzzle. I had a system. I separated the pieces with edges and tried to make the border. Then I separated the other pieces into colors. After that I just went for it. Dad still held the same blue piece. He stared at the edges, then the puzzle, then back. But he was studying so hard that he missed the obvious. “Dad.” I took his piece and fit it into the ocean. “It was right in front of you!” “I’m no good at this. I didn’t see it.” We laughed.

On the surface Lucy and her dad bond over the puzzle. But what else is going on? Essentially I’m showing the reader the essence of the two characters: Lucy’s willingness to tackle big things, even if they seem impossible, even if she’s in over her head; and Dad’s hesitation, how he studies so hard that he misses “the obvious.”

What else is Lucy in over her head about? What else did Dad not see?

It’s the heart of the novel. But you have to work a bit to figure it out.

Will readers have patience for this kind of exploration and thinking? Some won’t. But that’s the beauty of writing for kids. There are books for everyone. Adventure! Mysteries! Sports! Historical fiction! Plot-driven excitement!

And books like mine: character-driven pieces where the message is subtle and kids have to read between the lines; where symbols and metaphors will add to the understanding of the different themes if you are patient enough to find them.

Several years ago at a mom-daughter book group I introduced my first novel, TALL TALES, by talking about a scene where my main character, Meg, is standing in her yard. She tells the reader that in one direction she sees the town, in the other she sees cornfields and there she is, smack in the middle of it. I put Meg here on purpose, I said, to show how she’s “in between two places.” It’s one of the main themes of the book, how Meg is in between two worlds – that of her dysfunctional family and her new best friend’s wonderful family. Throughout the book there are other places where Meg is “in between” (such as standing in between doorways).

When I said this a girl literally jumped off of the couch. “You mean writers do that kind of thing on purpose?”

Then she got this big grin on her face, as if she’d just discovered a huge secret, and started pouring over the book, looking for other clues.

She certainly was up for the challenge.

Recently I received an e-mail from an adult MILLION MILES reader who didn’t understand how someone as “mature” as Lucy could have such irrational feelings about her dad’s girlfriend. The reader took Lucy’s actions at face value, not acknowledging the subtleness, not realizing that a girl who lost her mother would forever be marked; that running a camp for the younger kids was a chance for Lucy to mother others in a way that she hadn’t been; that saving to buy a kayak for dad was about keeping his affections. And that no matter how nice the girlfriend is, she’d always be a threat to Lucy’s memories of her mom.

And yet I think there’s a place in this big, messy world of kid’s lit for many types readers as well as writers. Not everyone has to or wants to work hard for what she/he reads.

But I keep coming back to what is lost.

The challenge of not knowing. The satisfaction of figuring something out. The joy of discovery.

And so I take my job as a writer for kids very seriously. And I know that there are readers out there who will dig deep. And who will read my books and understand that in the quietness, the subtleness, there’s perhaps something else there.