In Deep: Adam Baron on Boy Underwater
Adam Baron, the author of our Children's Book of the Month for June, Boy Underwater, discusses how he approached writing about difficult themes of loss, grief and mental illness in his first novel for children.
Sometimes life doesn’t seem fair. When this is true of a child’s life it is doubly upsetting. A decent, stable start should be the right of all children, wherever they are, though some are born into war, poverty or disease, others having to negotiate all manner of problems from broken homes to parental mental illness. Should fiction aimed at younger readers deal with these things? My belief is that, sometimes, it should. I’m lucky. I came from a stable, loving home, something I’m trying to provide for my own children. I know many young people for whom this is not the case however, and I wanted to write a novel to speak to them.
My hero Cymbeline has problems. His dad died when he was young and his mum suffers a breakdown which is, somehow, connected to the fact that she’s never taken him swimming (or anywhere near water). When she is taken into respite care Cymbeline must find out her secret, in order to save her (and himself). Does this sound like a novel aimed at young readers? When the idea came to me I thought that, perhaps, it did not, so what could I do, knowing that I had to write it?
The answer, quite simply, is safety. I keep my children safe, my primary function as a parent (followed closely by busboy, taxi driver and trampoline). When writing Boy Underwater I knew I had a tremendous responsibility to create a safe space for my readers, a place where they could confront and experience difficult subjects but (crucially) never feel threatened by them. I tried to keep the book as light as possible in the moments where I could, and Cymbeline helped me there. He is an innocent boy and I loved filtering the world through his optimistic, sometimes naïve point of view. I hoped that young readers would warm to him and want to follow him through the course of his journey, however hard it turns out to be for him. I hoped they would always know that Cymbeline’s honest and passionate desire for the truth would get him - and them - home safely.
As Boy Underwater features mental health issues, I also knew that I needed to get things right. I’m not a great fan of over-researched novels but I did take advice from a social worker friend who works in mental health, and from a friend who has experience of these issues. She saw an early draft and gave me some very helpful pointers. I have also seen, within my own family, how mental health problems can take over a person's life. My eldest brother suffers from bipolar disorder and I see how hard he has to work, on a daily basis, just to come to the level ground the rest of us take for granted. When I asked him if I could mention this here he immediately agreed, which makes me very proud of him.
In terms of the bereavement Cymbeline suffers, I have my own experiences to draw on. I lost my mother while young (though not as young as Cymbeline is). I wanted to write about his intense need to be with his mother because it so mirrors my own (which I feel to this day). The yearning he feels for her when she is in hospital is my own yearning, with a little wishful thinking thrown in: in the end, unlike me, Cymbeline gets his mother back. That’s our right though as authors, to create better outcomes in books than in real life (should we choose to do so).
I'd like young readers to understand that while life does hold many difficult challenges, the support of those around you can get you through them. It's why I gave Cymbeline a close, if dysfunctional family, and such very good friends, all of whom play a role in securing his happy ending. This is a happy ending that I hope seems natural, deserved, and never really in doubt, even if there didn’t seem to be any way at all that it could arrive.
I intend writing another novel featuring my young hero. This time, though, it will be the family secrets of one of his friends that he will explore. I very much hope that, once again, Cymbeline will show me the way.