Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fumbling for the Lights: Darkness in Mysteries for Kids

Last week, Elisa Ludwig kicked off our new Tuesday theme, Writing in the Dark. For the next few weeks, every Tuesday, we'll be addressing this topic according to our various interpretations of it. Elisa wrote about fear in mystery writing -- how we can tap into our own fears to create fear on the page. Writing in the Dark makes me think about fear too, and that leads me to think about the intersection between mysteries and crime.

Mystery and crime go hand in hand. If someone or something goes missing -- or a dead body appears -- someone's responsible. Something horrible happened. But some mysteries place more emphasis on crime and criminals than others. Some stories veil the violent actions or keep them mostly offstage. Others force their sleuths -- and readers -- to confront unpleasant events.

When writing mysteries for young people, it's important to think very carefully about how graphically you want to portray crimes, perpetrators, and victims. How dark you want to go. If a young person finds a dead body, should the victim be known to the young person? What are the consequences? How close to the body should a young sleuth get? If a protagonist is kidnapped or hurt or trapped in some way, just how creepy do you want to make the assailants? What are the consequences? Will the young sleuth be emotionally resilient enough to keep facing danger and solve the mystery? Will readers stay with that sleuth?

The darkness issue is something I'm wrestling with in my current work-in-progress. How much should I expose my young sleuth to? Will I sacrifice some degree of levity, of comic relief, if I go too edgy, too dark? My natural inclination is to lean toward the light. But if it's too light, do I sacrifice plausibility and a sense of pressing danger? Do I sacrifice suspense? I think this is one of the greatest challenges in writing mysteries that feature young sleuths. They should be in some danger. But not too much. Right? After all, they're still kids.

Sometimes in mystery writing I feel like I'm constantly adjusting Venetian blinds, trying to get just that right slant of light.

To help myself with this adjustment, I've started thinking about my own encounters with crime. It's not easy. I don't have many experiences to draw on. I worked at a Wendy's in high school and was robbed at a cash register. Freaky, but that happened so fast, and it was a long, long time ago. A former boyfriend was mugged -- terrifying -- yet I was not there.

But earlier this year, my house was part of a crime scene. It's useful for me to think about that dark night and all the emotions I had.

One night, a few months ago, we were all awakened by a loud sound. I first thought it was millions of my son's Legos spilling. I went downstairs to clean them up so the cat wouldn't eat them. I kept going even after I remembered my son does not own millions of Legos. And there, in a sunroom off the side of the house, I found a great big ugly rock on the floor, a broken window, a twisted and mangled lamp.

We called the police and waited for a cruiser. No one came. We called back and were told that calls were pouring in from all over town; we were one of many victims (19, in the end) of a nighttime vandalism spree. In the morning, I looked outside and found a skateboard in the bushes outside that broken window. Soon after, police came to take it away as evidence. They never caught the kids who did this. Everyone repaired their windows and got on with their lives.

Yet I still wonder what motivates someone, a young person, to go on a vandalism spree in a quiet town, what darker undercurrent may still be at work around us, and if it might happen again. Most of all, I'll never forget the ominous, sick, scared feeling of waiting for the police that night. How I stared out into the darkness  feeling like we'd been targeted for some reason, wondering if we were being watched, and if another rock would be hurled. How I fumbled for the switches and turned on all the lights in the house as if to banish the darkness.

I can take that experience and imagine how a younger person might react. (My instinct was to protect my young son. A younger person might wish to feel protected, to seek out a parent or other adult. Or, he or she might get on the phone with friends and brainstorm ideas about suspects, being closer in age to the vandals than I am). I can also take stories from the news, local crimes I read about, and imagine how a teen or tween sleuth might react. I can envision how events in the news might get treated in mysteries for young people, compared to mysteries or crime fiction for adults. I've also been reading mysteries for young people and tracking the balance of darkness and light, literally highlighting them in different colors to understand the proportion. Then I think about the effects.

How do you feel about darkness in mysteries for young people? How dark should kidlit mysteries go? What mysteries have you read where the balance feels just right? What mysteries have you read where the balance feels off? Are there things that mysteries and crime fiction for kids should not deal with or show?


Diana was born in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son. She also works as a freelance writer and editor in educational publishing, and has authored several ESL textbooks (which is way more exciting than it sounds). TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, coming June 14, 2012) is her first novel.


  1. That must have been really unsettling to discover the rock thrown through your window. I remember feeling vulnerable and dumbfounded when my car was stolen out of a gated garage at my old apartment building. I had so many questions for the thieves (particularly since the vehicle was recovered within 24 hours, with a fake shotgun in the back seat!).

    It's a tricky balance deciding how dark to go with MG and YA novels. You want realism but you also don't want to make the violence gratuitous. I liked your sentence, "Sometimes in mystery writing I feel like I'm constantly adjusting Venetian blinds, trying to get just that right slant of light."

    When I was reading Christopher Pike as a young teen, I liked some darkness because being scared was part of the fun of reading his books, but now that I'm older, and writing books for teens myself, I struggle with wondering how dark is too dark.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sarah! I have not read Christopher Pike; will put on my TBR list! Glad to know I'm not the only one who is at times in the dark about darkness. Oh, and creepy story, the fake gun in your stolen car! There's the seed of a mystery!

  3. Honestly, nothing is too dark for YA these days. I think the Hunger Games proved that. And the constant, 24-hour diet of violence kids are fed on TV. I don't think the darkness is the issue - it's more a worldview of hopelessness that can seep through. There's a reason behind why Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why, about a girl who commits suicide, remains a bestseller in YA. The challenge is to write the real world w/o capitulating to it, to create a sense of hope, of purpose and love/faith so teens walk away with their optimism intact.

  4. Great post Diana, and I hate that you had to deal with vandalism like that, but love that it got you thinking about motive :)

  5. Well said, Melodie. Love the idea of teens walking away with optimism intact. Thanks, Laura - it was actually a timely vandalism event because a rock had also been hurled through a window in the book I was writing; I'd just written that scene days before. That made it extra eerie.


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