Last weekend I completed my first draft of Raccoon Retreat, the sequel to Raccoon Rescue. It came as something of a surprise: writing the book has been a slog, and I thought it might take at least until the end of the month.
That’s because for me, endings are almost always more difficult to write than beginnings or even middles. I like to watch stories unfold; coming to the climax means the story is at an end, there will be no more spending time in this world. That’s always somehow disappointing, no matter how satisfying the payoff.
With Raccoon Retreat, the reverse was true. I quickly worked out that this was because of the subject matter: habitat destruction, or as I quickly came to define it, “baby raccoon dystopia.” Half joking, but not far off truth. In contrast to Raccoon Rescue, a story about where an unexpected human-wildlife encounter might lead, I found myself writing a story in which everything is unexpected.
What constitutes “baby raccoon dystopia”?
Raccoons are creatures of habit, with clearly defined “home ranges.” When those ranges are destroyed or fragmented, a domino effect occurs for the animals that survive the destruction. At a very high level:
- The raccoons and other animals become disoriented as the dens, the landmarks, the scented spots, the trails they use to find their way disappear.
- Food sources become scarce, even for omnivorous animals like raccoons. Predatory animals are left fighting for the remainder, and many animals starve to death.
- Animals are also forced to compete for shelter. Crowding can result in disease outbreaks, and the remaining animals are that much more vulnerable to predators as well as weather events like storms.
(Where I am in rapidly growing Upstate South Carolina, the wildlife rehabbers I know have, anecdotally, noticed a number of these trends over the past several years, including an uptick in starving raptors and a worse-than-usual canine distemper epidemic.)
Is dystopia safe for young kids to read?
Of course, dystopia is all the rage in young-adult and even middle grade fiction, but what about chapter books for younger children? Habitat destruction is bleak for sure, and could be disturbing. However, as North Carolina children’s author Mary Jane Nirdlinger wrote in her recent blog, “A Monster Calls. Why we need hopeful books on difficult topics”:
Kids read for truth and their world is not the cheery candy-colored confection adults strive so mightily to create. They should be given hope, yes. But hope without reality is about as satisfying as cotton candy.
Kids know there’s more out there – things we’re not telling them – and they deserve the truth.
I wrote, likewise, in “Tackling Sophisticated Book Topics (Raising Tweens)“: “As parents, we spend so many years of our children’s lives shielding them from life’s harsher realities – or at least, things that are hard for them to understand – that we often don’t realise the point at which they become able to process them.”
Truth-telling in the form of dystopia, even so, is about showing how all the rules you thought you could rely on are erased. This is both straightforward and not, because whether writing for kids or adults, you have to work out which “rules” are the focus of these characters’ growth and development.
“Life lesson” anchor points
So, writing “baby raccoon dystopia” needed to offer some anchor points that would enable kids to learn lessons for themselves as well as about animals:
- The characters’ habitat couldn’t be completely razed, so that they could still have a landmark to go by. This is realistic; looking at land clearing around here, you can see strips of trees that are left behind, often along streams or other land formations that would be awkward to develop.
- The raccoon kits had to be old enough to survive on their own… with a little help from friends who know the area. Roxy, Rufus, and Renae encounter a younger raccoon family of a mom with late-season babies (those born in late spring or early summer, as opposed to early or mid-spring). This kind of banding together is, as my research uncovered, realistic for urban animals.
- The raccoons might encounter sick or starving animals, but it couldn’t be a focus — length of exposure would raise the risk that they would become sick, and of course, wild animals have no access to medical care. (In fact, they frequently mask injuries and illnesses to avoid looking vulnerable to predators.)
To me, writing “baby raccoon dystopia” is a way to encourage kids to empathize with others — raccoon, human, or other species — who find themselves in worlds turned upside down, as well as to learn how to survive their own personal upheavals. As author Jess Keating put it:
What are your favorite books that inspire empathy for wildlife and others in difficult circumstances?