Gelegentlich schreibe ich für „Kruschel – Deine Zeitung“, die Kinderzeitung der Verlagsgruppe Rhein Main. Für einen Beitrag über Blutkrebs hatte ich kürzlich mit der DKMS zu tun. Im Nachgang meldete sich Julia Runge, die mir dort meine Fragen rund um Leukämie beantwortet hatte, um zu fragen, ob ich anlässlich des Weltkindertags am 20. September einen Gastbeitrag für den DKMS-Blog schreiben könnte. Darin sollte ich meine ganz persönliche Herangehensweise beim Schreiben für Kinder darlegen. Ich schätze die Arbeit der DKMS sehr und habe das deshalb gerne getan. Mein Text findet sich hier. Im Blog veröffentliche ich ihn für Tonis Familie auf Englisch.
There’s this saying: Be who you needed when you were younger. Like for many quotes, the internet identifies different sources so I can’t say exactly who it is from. But to be the person you needed when you were younger seems like a good thing to do when writing for kids, too. As I think it’s generally a good idea to remind us of the times we ourselves were children with oh so many questions. Back then, nothing was more annoying than a grown up telling us we were too little to understand.
I once attended a workshop on writing for children and the teacher back then explained to us, when doing so it’s really not WHAT but HOW that matters most. Which is to say, as a journalist you can offer children pretty much every topic. The important thing is how you deal with said topic. Which pretty much matches the childhood memory of always wanting to know everything.
Of course, this also means there’s quite a margin of judgement. But this, on the other hand, is true for the profession in general: The chief editor has to decide which topics to cover, the head of local news can only make so many appointments and every journalist decides each and every time anew how to deal with a certain subject. So, the margin of judgement is not only at work when writing for kids but rather part of the job itself.
When my nephew who is now eleven years old asks me about something I will probably answer his question somewhat different from how I did a couple of years ago. If he asks me again in four years my answer will yet again differ. Of course, not in its substance but in the way I talk to him and explain things. I might be more detailed every time and with growing age tell him things I once held back to protect him. In our day-to-day routine we handle these things very intuitively and I believe we should keep this intuition at heart when writing for kids as journalists.
How did grandpa find his way to heaven? Why does war exist? Why do people detonate bombs on their body? Why do children have to die? Kids have so many questions and some of them might scare us as adults. It’s a natural reflex to want to protect them from all of this. But protecting them from these topics means protecting them from the world we – they! – live in.
We can’t find explanations for everything but we can try, open doors, talk about things and with that take some of the fears away that children experience. And it’s okay to write that there’s not an answer to everything and that sometimes when sad or stressed its best just to hug your dad or cuddle up to your little sister. War, terror, illnesses, misery – all of this is real and exists all around us. It is important, not to keep this knowledge from children. But it is just as important to handle these topics in a way that assures them rather than scares them.
Yes, there’s a deadly war going on in Syria and that’s quite scary. Families run off and leave everything behind that’s dear to them. We can’t change anything about that. But we can tell children how it’s possible to help these refugees in our countries, how they can collect toys and games for them or be extra niece to the new girl in their class. Yes, it is unsettling how Mum cries all day. But she has an illness called depression. It’s like a broken bone in her soul. She’s sick and it’s never ever the child’s fault. She still loves her kids, she just can’t show it. Yes, cancer is scary, especially if it’s a kid who fights it. But one learns to live with it because there’s no other way. And as a family it’s even possible to grow with the situation, against all odds.
Whenever I write for children I imagine a child I’m explaining something to. A lot of times it’ll be my nephew. He once asked his mom why it is that not everybody donates their organs. That way death would still be very sad but at least everyone dying would help another person to live. This show’s that sometimes children have the best explanations after all. Because of that it’s very important for a journalist to be a good listener.
This is how I stuck with Toni’s story. I met her mom Lacy when spending a year in the US in my teens. Shortly before her 9th birthday Toni was diagnosed with leukemia. In the children’s newspaper “Kruschel – Deine Zeitung” her story reads like this:
A short while before her ninth birthday, the doctors diagnosed Toni Marino with leukemia. This happened in October 2013 and was a real shock for her family. Luckily, at first the chemotherapy destroyed the cancer-cells in Toni’s body. But unfortunately, she didn’t stay in remission very long. The cancer returned in the summer of 2014. It was then that her little brother Kam did something really heroic: He became a donor for his sister! Toni was brave and a bold fighter. She did miss her friends and the school, though. And the stupid cancer kept returning… Toni died on December 26th, 2016. Her family is very sad and misses her so much! But they’re also very thankful for what Kam did. He says: “I was scared to give my bone marrow, but it didn’t hurt that bad. I was glad that we had that option to help my sister, Toni. We were able to make a lot more memories because I donated my bone marrow.” They think about Toni very often and when Kam misses her most, he cuddles with Smokey, the dog Toni rescued from a shelter.
Of course, it’s unbelievably sad that Toni had to die. But there’s also so much hope in her story because her family pulled through and grew stronger while a lot of families in similar situations fall apart under the painful pressure. To show this hope in the story is the matter of HOW I was writing about earlier. If we succeed in doing this as journalists we don’t overburden children but rather help them along their way of finding out that the world’s made up of good and bad, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.