Dirty Little Secrets

It’s such a typical trope in children’s books—the young protagonist, afraid of the repercussions, keeps a secret from the people most likely to help. I get it—it isolates the protagonist and keeps the focus of the story on the child, forcing him or her to find a solution without being rescued. And I find it annoying, lazy, and potentially dangerous to young readers.

Secrets are so often a central plot point that I’m tired of them. I just have secret fatigue—it’s boring and creates annoyance more often than tension.

They also often feel like lazy storytelling. If the plot can’t survive the involvement of well-meaning adults or caring friends, then it’s a pretty thin plot. I feel manipulated and condescended to when a plot hinges on the protagonist keeping secrets they have no good reason to keep. And I can hear the argument now—I’m an adult; I’m not the intended target audience; kids will be fine with it. But kids aren’t stupid and they know good stories. Lazy storytelling because your audience is children is arguably a worse sin than lazy storytelling in adult books.

But primarily, as a parent, I am horrified by the number of books that suggest to kids that you should never tell an adult anything, no matter how much danger you’re in. The last thing I want people telling my kids is that, when they’re in a tight spot, they shouldn’t turn to adults who love them. This is what abusers tell kids—Don’t tell, no matter what I do, because it will go badly for you. This is why so much bullying goes unaddressed—Everyone will hate you if you tell on me. I’ll come back and hurt you if you say anything. Why do so many kids’ books back up this idea?

I know it’s fiction, but while novels may not often convey facts, they do help us develop our ideas of truth, often unconsciously. If most of the protagonists in the books you read can’t count on adults when it matters, you may start to doubt that the adults in your life will be there when you need them. When you’re already nervous of how people will react if you share the mistakes you’ve made, you don’t need every book you read backing up your silence.

I know there are cases where telling an adult leads to bad consequences. It’s adults who hand out groundings, detentions, etc. And to a kid it’s possible that many of the punishments adults hand down seem arbitrary and irrational. But when it honestly truly matters—when your child is in danger, when someone threatens to harm your child, when your child is in pain—most parents want what’s best for their children and will go to the mat for them. Parents are often the best advocates for their children, and giving kids the idea that they can’t count on this support seems downright dangerous.

Caveat: I know that there are awful cases where secrets must be kept from parents who would actually hurt their kids rather than help them. But most books aimed at tween readers aren’t addressing those issues and those aren’t the cases I’m talking about here.

I know—kids need to learn to be independent and solve their own problems to a great extent. And despite a very close relationship with my mother, I didn’t tell her absolutely everything when I was a kid (although I did honestly tell her most stuff). But so many of the secrets kids keep in novels are things they really ought to tell their parents—I need to go do this thing in this dangerous place. This person is trying to hurt me. This traumatic thing happened to me. I have a bad feeling about this situation.

I don’t want every book my kids read to underline the ideas that those who might hurt them would most want to drive home—You’re on your own. No one can or will help you. The truth will hurt you more than a lie. People will hate you or punish you if you tell them what’s happened. The truth will hurt those around you.

It’s not only lazy and annoying storytelling; it’s ethically dubious. We owe kids better than that.


  1. Lisa Padol says:

    One reason I like Seanan McGuire’s _Discount Armageddon_ (admittedly, aimed at an older audience) is that whenever our heroine gets a moment to breathe, she _calls her family_ and updates them on all the dangerous things she is doing. She sends pictures and text files as needed, and they reciprocate, trying to get her the information she needs.

    Are you in the Mythopoeic Society? If not, consider joining it and being on the Childrens’ Award committee next year. We focus on works “in the spirit of the Inklings” as defined by individual committee members, but old fashioned values like good plots, characterization, and messages (intentional or not) are also important.

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