In part one I considered the difference between writers who proceed by outline and by discovery. In part two, we’ll look at imagined audiences: a classroom of kids, and the author’s younger self.
A lot of children’s writers have worked as teachers. It makes sense that people who like kids and care about kids would want to work with kids. It also makes sense that a person who has experience focusing a classroom would be able to know what they want. Whenever Rick Riordan questions whether to cut a boring part, he imagines that squirming kid at the back of the room, and there’s no question. (Relevant 0:15-0:30.)
Robert Munsch takes this a step further. When on book tours, he often stayed with families and ended up using those children in his stories. His first picture books were written orally, telling them to daycare kids. He revised based on reactions, and included visceral sound effects in his work. (This brings up the performative nature of picture books, which I’ll do another post about later.)
On his website, you can hear him read them all. Highly recommended. (Unfortunately, I can’t find any videos of full readings. Here’s a snippet from the Toronto Star.)
This undeniably works. It also seems to refute the common advice to write your stories for one particular person, because you’ll fail if you try to please everyone.
Other children’s writers do aim for smaller crowds. Often, family. After Kenneth Oppel starts drafting, he reads his novels to his kids and (like Munsch) revises based on their reactions.
But not everyone who writes for children feels the need to run their ideas past kids. Last year at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, Shane Peacock, the author of The Boy Sherlock Holmes Series, was quite adamant that he did not care what anyone else thought he should write. He will write what he thinks is interesting. And as he read a dark, description heavy passage on the discovery of an eyeball in a cobblestone alley–everyone in the theatre was riveted.
Let’s go a further, because perhaps while Peacock wouldn’t ask for advice, he might still imagine a kid audience he’s trying to please. You can’t get clearer than Maurice Sendak’s denials that he doesn’t consciously write for children (1:15-1:50).
“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book. I don’t know how to write a children’s book. How do you write about that? How do you set out to write a children’s book? It’s a lie.”
Or how about this Sendak quote from the Believer?
“I never started out as a children’s book artist. What is a children’s-book artist? A moron! Some ugly fat pip-squick of a person who can’t be bothered to grow up. That’s the way we’re treated in the adult world of publishing. […] I’m an illustrator. I have to accept my role. I will never kill myself like Vincent van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie-book person. It sounds like I’m complaining, but it has no effect on me. I have a good life.”
Then there’s Katherine Paterson, who replied when asked if it got harder to write for kids after her own children had left the house, “I never wrote for them. I always write for the child in me, and she is still in there.”
Peacock, Sendak, and Paterson seem to be driven by more personal inclinations than Riordan, Munsch or Oppel. What’s the result?
It might correspond with another shift. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Ursula Nordstrom at Harper’s edited and published what she called “good books for bad children.” She is often referred to as the most important editor of children’s books for the last century. The list of writers she worked with is staggering: E. B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Syd Hoff, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstien, etc.
A lot of books from my childhood that weren’t directly associated with Nordstrom still seem to fit her “good books for bad children” motto. Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) is a perfect example, as are Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (1990) and Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me (1993).
And then a boy with a lightning-shaped scar appeared.
People are still figuring out what the blockbuster success of Harry Potter means. Books are getting longer (extreme example: Tuck Everlasting = 28,000 words & The Amulet of Samarkand = 122,000), but is that it?
I see a change happening across the board in children’s literature–from picture books to YA–so maybe I shouldn’t just pin it on Harry Potter. The change I see is that the material is moving further and further into empowering kids by giving them ownership of their materials.
Picture books have less words than they used to. It’s now rare to see books with a paragraph on one side, and a picture on the other. The books are getting more immersive, with fewer words, allowing the kids to get deeper into the books themselves without the need of an adult bridge.
A spread from “Blueberries for Sal”, published in 1949.
Jillian Jiggs, 1985…
and “Yo! Yes?” from 1994.
In middle-grade novels, I see the same trend towards ownership. Whereas the narrators of Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh often reference the fact that they’re telling you a story, most narrators today are invisible. So we don’t end up with an adult-writer telling a story about a kid-character to the kid-reader. The kid-reader just directly watches the kid-character.
I feel like the existence and surge of YA fits my theory as well. Many adults are still telling teens that they should be skipping to adult books. A lot of teens are choosing books where they feel represented instead.
I should note that I’m talking about trends, not laws. Green Eggs and Ham debuted in 1960, deliberately using only 50 simple words. Lemony Snicket is one of the cattiest, most intrusive narrators I’ve ever met. However, I think the trend is real.
An implication of this move towards children’s ownership of their books isn’t just format (narration) and subject matter (ex. Captain Underpants). I think it favours writers who write for throngs of kids, rather than the tortured artist’s inner child.
That’s a good thing, right?
Depends. What is art for?
According to David Foster Wallace, art should “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” Which is often what good books for bad kids did. I remember reading some of those books in elementary school. They challenged me to become more empathic.
I still regularly here children’s writers talk about writing for their inner children, and I think I count myself as one of them. I often feel like I’m trying to write books that I wish I had read when I was younger. To push, nurture, and entertain young-Bill.
Like gardening and architecture, the categories I’m talking about here are not mutually exclusive. In A Sense of Wonder, Paterson talks about children who connect and respond strongly to her characters. And there are several moments in Riordan’s books that could inspire reflection.
I’ve been working with young people since 2004. I have lots of practice at making kids laugh and keeping their attention. After I type out a draft, I visualize it through their eyes. And if I feel like a paragraph is boring, or irrelevant, it’s going to be crossed out.
Because at the end of the day, kids’ books are for kids.
My next post will be the first entry in my “Five Great Things” category. First up, great children’s book concepts!