As some of you may know I'm the primary author of The Sisters 8 series for young readers, my co-authors on the series being my husband Greg Logsted and our nine-year-old daughter Jackie. The books are about octuplets whose parents go missing one New Year's Eve.
The other day I received an email from a concerned father:
I read my 7 year old daughter the first chapter of Annies's Adventures last night at bedtime and, I have to tell you, it terrified and traumatized her. The whole concept of the children's parents disappearing (or being perhaps dead) that permeates the first chapter was deeply disturbing to her and the constant reiteration of the possibility of them being dead by one of the characters, including references to Ax Murderers, was troubling to say the least. Having to answer the question, "Daddy, what's an ax murderer?" at bedtime to a seven year old? What were you thinking? Did I make a mistake in thinking these were good books for a girl seven going on eight?
This totally threw me. I've never received a message like this before from a parent. On the contrary, The Sisters 8 have generated more fan mail than any of the other 10 books I've had previously published with the stack growing so quickly it'll soon be at the point where it's generated more fan mail than all my other books combined. The messages come from kids, always desperate to know when the next book will be out, as well as moms, dads and even grandparents. I've received more than one note from a grateful older relative saying their daughter or granddaughter never liked to read before being introduced to the Eights. I'm proud of that.
But I'm not proud of terrifying and traumatizing that concerned father's daughter.
So what was I thinking of when I began writing a series where the parents have disappeared ("Or died!" as the famously sour Rebecca would have me add)? What was I thinking when I made reference to an ax murderer?
I was thinking of creating something with my then six-year-old daughter that we could enjoy together. Somehow from there it snowballed into a series that now others, for the most part, enjoy (and even go gaga over). In our household we revere Roald Dahl, and get pretty ecstatic over Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey as well. Oh, and did I mention Charles Addams? We like our humor dark. We like it light too.
I've had the pleasure of reading The Sisters 8 in schools and have seen kids break into laughter at the "ax murderer" reference and Rebecca's repeated insistence that the parents must be dead. Are the kids who laugh at these things ghouls? I don't think so. I think they simply get that the ax murderer concerns come from Petal, the sister who worries about everything, and that Rebecca is just being Rebecca: cranky, ornery, dark. Yes, I've had the occasional parent or teacher ask me in a worried voice, "The parents aren't really dead...are they?" But if you ask the kids if they think the parents are really dead, they'll say: no, that the parents are simply missing; and they seem to further get that in the meantime, while waiting for the parents to be found, there will be mystery and magic and adventure.
Is there something wrong with this man's child that she doesn't react to the story in the way most kids do? No.
What did I say to him? I said:
I can honestly say this is the first time I've heard this from a parent or child about The Sisters 8 but I am also sincerely sorry that you and your daughter had this experience. Every child is different, and for some reason this book has struck a scary chord with your daughter. Who knows why one thing bothers one child when other children might experience the exact same thing differently? Really, I don't know what to tell you other than: Please stop reading the book to your daughter! The last thing I would want is to have something that I and my own husband and daughter created cause your child emotional discomfort. Again, I'm very sorry.
I hope it was the right thing to say. What else could I say? We all do process story differently. We all take entertainment from or feel threatened by different things.
As a parent, you get to know the things your kid finds fearful. With my own kid, I like to think I know what will bother her and what won't. But occasionally she surprises me. One time, I was sure that something in a movie we were watching would upset her and yet it didn't. When I questioned her about it, she looked at me like I was an idiot. "Why would that bother me?" she said. "I know it's not real."
Just for the record: there are no ax murderers in The Sisters 8. Come to think of it, I don't think there's any real death at all - not even a pigeon (of which there are many in the books) or a dog (the Eights, being devout cat people, do sometimes speak rather negatively of dogs) - but there is plenty of mystery and magic and adventure. There are also eight little girls learning some pretty important lessons: when and how to rely on other people, and most important of all, how to rely on themselves.
Be well. Don't forget to write.