I'm not often lost for words (obviously a jolly good thing in a writer) but tonight I was asked a question about writing I didn't know how to answer. As you might already know, I teach Writing For Children at City University and we're approaching the end of the course, where the students are preparing to submit a piece of writing to me for feedback. And this evening, one of my students told me he had been reading a how to write book and one of the things it had apparently advised was to avoid 'friendly uncle' type characters in your stories as these could be perceived as immunising children against the risks of potential child abuse. Should he cut the mad professor character he had in his story, my student wanted to know, in case it was taken the wrong way and it went against him when being read by agents and editors?
My first reaction (after a startled, 'What?') was disbelief that any writing book would advise this. Then I started to think about it and I could kind of see what the book was getting at but still found it mind-boggling that anyone would come away from any of the children's book I've read with that thought uppermost in their mind. There are hundreds (thousands) of innocent characters in books whose actions could be misconstrued if you chose to see them in that light - does that mean that they shouldn't exist? Or is it offensive to friendly uncles and men in books everywhere to tar them with this horrible brush?
I failed to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question, partly because I was struggling to get my head around the idea. I advised the student not to get too bogged down in that kind of advice - to write the story and the characters the way he sees them in his head and not allow them to be subject to the projected interpretations of adults. I also said it might be a nice idea to make his nutty professor a woman, since it's a reasonable subversion of a well-used trope and side-steps the whole issue. But I walked away uneasy. Obviously, we have a responsibility to our young audience when we write. How far should we take that responsibility?