Monday, October 03, 2011

Why I Write For Children

Back in 2009, just before I launched my second novel TIMOTHY AND THE DRAGON'S GATE, I did a guest blogpost over at the then agent, now author, always delightful Nathan Bransford's blog.  It was on why I write for children.  Seeing as I often get asked that question, it seemed to make sense that I take some time and answer it at length.

I'd like to repost it here because a) still wrapping up edits so I figure stealing from myself is a smart choice, and b) I still feel extremely passionate about this subject.

So here you go!

As a writer of middle grade novels, I probably get this question most often: “Why do you write for children?” Actually that’s probably the second most common question I get. The first most common question is, “So are you the next JK Rowling?” which I could never find an appropriate answer to until I just started replying, “Yes.” At any rate. This second most common question of why I write for children has always been a very interesting one to me, and one which I would like to discuss now.

First I would like to discuss the nature of the question. Often it comes out of a genuine curiosity – why do I like that particular genre, kind of like “Why do you write mysteries, western, literary” etc. But it can also come from a place of total confusion where truly the question is, “Why do you write for children instead of adults?”

It is a question that supposes that in an ideal world, an author’s first choice would obviously be to write for adults, because those are the “real” books. I mean, let’s face it, there is a stigma attached with writing books that aren’t for adults. There is also a stigma attached to writing genre fiction (SF/Fantasy) or romance books. In general, it is widely known that there are certain genres out there that don’t, for whatever reason, earn the same respect as commercial or literary fiction. This can be best demonstrated, I think, in a recent round table for The New Yorker, where in their attempt to discuss and praise a YA novel, the members of the round table manage to insult an entire genre with sweeping generalizations and total misinformation, calling the genre “facile” and “boring”.

Why it is that otherwise seemingly intelligent people are so determined to put down entire genres altogether boggles my mind. I truly don’t know why anyone of reasonable intelligence would make such generalizations. The whole point in having a thoughtful mind is understanding that there are good and bad elements to most everything, that making generalizations is the complete opposite of thoughtful logical analysis.

At any rate, because of these prejudices, I often do get the question.

And this is my answer:

I don’t write for children.

Yes, I am incredibly fortunate that one of the side effects of my writing is that I get to meet with some of the most amazing kids out there. That I get to be a source of inspiration to children around the world (which is still a little overwhelming for me). No author could ask for more. But in all honesty, I write in a genre that I happen to really love.

So what I’m doing, actually, is not so much writing for children as writing what I enjoy.

The question then becomes: What do I enjoy about children’s books?


I have never once had to explain to a child why it is possible for my story to have tall ships and laptops in the same universe. Why there is an Extremely Ginormous Octopus having conversations with people in a world where the rest of the animals behave as typical animals and no one blinks an eye. But I have had adults balk at those elements. And I have explained these odd juxtapositions simply as typical elements of “Magical Realism” (because that is truly my genre). Children are so much more willing just to sit back and enjoy the story, instinctively understanding that not everything has to have an explanation and that, in fact, sometimes a lack of explanation makes the story that much more fun.

I love the whimsy in children’s books. I love the saturated emotions, the dealing with real issues without overcomplicating them and over thinking them. I love how dark children’s books can be, how the stakes can often be life and death. And yet despite these elements I love how unsentimental children’s books are (contrary to popular belief of some writers who think children’s books must be morality tales, all sugary sweet; kids for the most part don’t put up with that nonsense). Children’s books don’t have time to revel in their self-importance. Kids are a tough audience and they’ll turn their backs if the story is less than stellar.

I love the humour in many children’s books I’ve read, the originality, the freedom. And I love the writing. Yes, you read right. I love a well-written children’s book. Because the actual writing in a children’s book can – surprise! – actually be good. The fact that a phrase comes across as simple, or straightforward, does not mean it doesn’t take a great deal of effort and talent to turn that phrase. Some children’s book authors can capture an exact moment, an exact feeling, in such a lovely straightforward way – but in an entirely original way as well.

Children’s books are also some of the last instances of the survival of an oral tradition. We rarely read books aloud anymore, nor sit around the fire and have someone tell a good old yarn. We read to ourselves, isolated in our own little world. But children’s books get read aloud. Parents read them to their kids, teachers to their students. For this reason many children’s book authors have great fun playing with language, with interesting words that are fun to say. There is a real love of language in children’s books.

In general there is a certain level of passion and excitement in the world of children’s books. It is a world that is, above all, interested in entertaining. I am not saying that kidlit authors aren’t interested in educating as well, but if the book isn’t entertaining you are going to lose your audience really fast and so lose out on any educating opportunities. The focus is so clearly on the audience and not on the author.

Finally there is also one rather grown-up pleasure for me as a kidlit writer: in the children’s book community, the authors, publishers etc, are just so wonderfully supportive of each other, so excited about what they do. It’s a community of warmth and generosity where, for once, the word “community” doesn’t have to stretch itself out of shape to be an apt description.

All of this is why I love children’s books.

Except that the books I read aren’t “children’s books”; they are “Adrienne likes this stuff books”. They are books meant for whoever enjoys them. I so often also get emails from adults who tell me they enjoy my work “even though they are meant for children”. Well, no. You enjoyed it, it diverted you, it was therefore meant for you.

The same can be said of any genre that one unexpectedly enjoys. We have to categorise things for practicality’s sake, but truly, every book is unique, every book has its own pros and cons. And that’s a wonderful thing. It might make life easier to put everything in its place, less messy, but, to me at least, doing so makes things a lot less interesting.

And a lot less fun.

1 comment:

Julie Hedlund said...

Amazing post! Thank you for writing so eloquently what so many of us children's writers are thinking (and want to say to those who ask us the same questions)