Light and Dark

Chiaroscuro. It’s a mixture of the Italian words for light and dark, and it’s a term used in painting and photography to describe how light plays against darkness to create dimension.

I thought of this word when I read an essay in Time by children’s book author Matt de la Peña, “Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children From Darkness.” He wrestles with this question: Is the job of the writer for the very young to tell the truth or preserve innocence?

He explains how he created his newest picture book Love as a counterbalance to the current divisiveness in the world. It’s like an illustrated poem showing how love appears in all kinds of places. But the book isn’t without shadows. One page shows a child huddled underneath a piano, being nuzzled by a dog, a highball glass sitting atop the piano—indicating a drinking parent. (Matt and his illustrator fought hard to keep that image in the book.)

Matt favors being honest with kids in literature, which he believes is a good and safe way to introduce them to the complexities of life. His previous picture book Last Stop on Market Street (winner of a Newberry award) is about a little boy who lives on the wrong side of the tracks who asks his grandmother why their family doesn’t have things like a car and iPod.

(For the record, Matt taught at Gotham for many years. Now he spends most of his non-writing time in schools all over the country talking to kids. Little kids who like his picture books and big kids who like his young adult novels. He’s a writer truly influencing lives.)

In his essay, Matt references fellow children’s book author Kate DiCamillo, who then wrote a response

to Matt in Time. She supports Matt’s notion about writing honestly for kids (which she certainly does) by citing E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, which has been loved by children for over 60 years. And yet few stories have an ending so sad. I won’t give it away except to say it deals with death and I once had to desperately fight tears while re-reading the book on a crowded subway.

Mixing light and dark is a great technique for grown-up stories as well. A play as dark as Macbeth is lightened by the comic porter scene right in the middle. A musical as light as Grease is deepened with a song about a girl who fears an unwanted pregnancy. Look for the chiaroscuro in all your stories.

And in these days that seem so dark and divisive we just want to hide under the bed, it’s a good idea to keep looking for a little light.

Alex Steele

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