In defense of children’s writers

Picture this:

You’re at a friend’s dinner party, and you meet a complete stranger. You start talking.
 
Him: What do you do?
You: I’m a writer.
Him: Oh! Cool! What do you write?
You: Novels for teens.
Him: (noticeably less enthused) Oh, teens. Okay. Well, someday you’ll probably write a real book, right? Like, for adults?

 
Sound familiar? Of course it does. Nearly everyone I know who writes for kids and teens has been there at least once.
 
There’s this mass misconception out there that because we write for younger people, our words are worth less. People assume that our craft is easier because our target audience doesn’t know quite as many vocabulary words. That our books are “warm-up books” before we become real novelists. I think the fallacy at work here is two-fold: first, that our books don’t matter as much as those by our Pulitzer-prize-winning, highbrow-literary-fiction-writing counterparts, and second, that we ourselves are somehow less sophisticated than the people who write for adults.
 
I think those who assert that one kind of storytelling is more real than another are missing the point of storytelling altogether. What I’ve always liked best about fiction—ALL fiction, of all genres, for all ages—is that although those stories didn’t really happen, they’re more real than the truth. Good storytellers distill our lives, allowing us to see the patterns, themes, and narrative threads that exist in real life but are usually obscured by confusing, extraneous details. Because writers are allowed to manipulate reality, books get straight to the heart of emotions and truths in a way real life can’t. And that’s just as much the case for children’s books as it is for adult literature. People accuse stories for kids and teens of being “smaller,” more simplistic, and of wrapping up too neatly. But there’s nothing small or unimportant about learning to deal with the world and other humans for the first time, and there’s nothing easy about writing a story that teaches those skills. And when a writer wraps things up neatly at the end of her story, it’s not because she doesn’t see the complexity in the world or that she believes life always delivers happy endings. It’s because she believes things can work out, and she wants to teach her young readers to hope, to strive for the best possible outcome. 
 
As for the second assertion—that people who write and read children’s literature are less complicated than “real” writers and readers—I think that comes down to a question of definitions.
 
Being childlike is not the same as being childish


Childish adults are the whiny, petulant, entitled ones. They pout when things don’t go their way, when they don’t get the toys they want, when they’re forced to share. As kids, we expect other people to take care of us and clean up our messes, and that’s fine when you’re four. But some people never grow out of that, and shirking responsibility is no longer cute when you’re thirty. Childish adults are the ones who still possess the qualities everyone dislikes about children, the things absolutely nobody looks back on with nostalgia.
 
For the most part, these are probably not the people who are writing books, a job that requires focus and self-motivation and a great deal of patience. If you don’t have the attention span to do your own laundry or pay your cable bill, chances are you don’t have the attention span to create and perfect 50,000+ words.
 
Childlike adults, on the other hand, are the ones who have managed to retain some of the best qualities of childhood as they matured into self-sufficient adults. They’re the people who still marvel at the world around them and haven’t lost their sense of wonder and delight at the strangeness around every corner. They’re open to new experiences and hungry for knowledge. They spend a lot of time asking “What if?” questions, and they still like to play make-believe, if only inside their own heads. These people are the ones who write exceptional fiction—especially children’s fiction, which is infused with an underlying sense of hope and possibility in a way adult fiction often isn’t. They don’t act like children, but they remember what it feels like to think like children. And that is what makes their books so poignant and wonderful.
 
All right, I’m finished with my rant. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go spend some time getting paid to hang out with my imaginary friends.

Comments

  1. says

    Nicely put. I have always thought that the following quote from the Bible speaks to that ability to be childlike in the presence of the wonders of the world that a good writer/artist needs to have.

    "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." Luke 18:17

  2. says

    This is awesome, Alison, and so true.

    It's funny, the people who awe me the most are picture book authors. To find a way to distill a story into so few words and capture the attention of both a child and his/her parent is a skill that so few people possess (but every muggle thinks is the easiest thing on the planet.)

  3. says

    Yes! Especially about picture book authors–when I tell people I write children's books, they always think I mean picture books. Then I explain that I actually write novels, and they say, "Oh, so you write real books then. I thought you meant the ones with pictures."

    Then I always have to explain to them that I think writing a picture book may be the hardest task in the world, and I am not talented enough to do it, so I have to stick to the much easier job of writing novels. I don't think they understand that I am telling the truth.