Leave the Kids (Writers) Alone

by Editors

THE WRITING LIFE

Leave the Kids (Writers) Alone:

Despite the perception, writing for young readers is serious business

By Erin Dionne, Bread and Circus co-editor

A couple of weeks ago, I received the latest issue of Writer’s Digest in the mail. Ann Brashares, author of the bestselling Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, is on the cover with the headline: “The WD Interview: Ann Brashares Moves Beyond Teen Fiction.”

Recently a friend said to me, “When does Harry Potter stop being a children’s book?”

Another said, “Anyone can write a kid’s book.”

And then a colleague asked, “Why would you choose to write for kids?”

What is it with the perception that writing for children is less worthy of an endeavor than writing for adults? As children’s books become more and more popular with adult readers—especially young adult titles such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (and its sequel, New Moon, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 45 weeks) or the Harry Potter series—one would think that the depth and quality of these books would change public perception, but that doesn’t seem the case. If anything, the attitude seems to be going in the opposite direction…as more children’s books achieve mainstream popularity, the more the genre and its authors are bullied.

Contemporary writers for children can recount a litany of slights. Deborah Davis, author of Not Like You (Clarion), My Brother Has AIDS (Atheneum), and The Secret of the Seal (Crown), sums most of these tales up:

I have been asked if I think I’ll ever write for adults, as if then my work might be given serious consideration. And I’ve heard, so many times, “Oh, I’ve got an idea for a children’s book that I’m going to write as soon as I can find the time”–as if all it takes is a little time and inclination, maybe a few weeks over the summer, a project to be squeezed between jobs. I never hear people say to a writer of books for adults, “I’m going to write my novel, too, when I have a few weeks to spare.” There’s an assumption that writing for young people takes less time, less blood, sweat, and tears, maybe even less intelligence than works for adults. I think this is a huge and unfortunate misconception.

Even Judy Blume, one of the pioneers of the YA genre, 2004 recipient of an honorary National Book Award for contributions to American letters, is not above such criticism. On her first title for adults she says, “When Wifey was published some people thought I would never write another children’s book, some thought I had written a real book at last…”

So where do the misconception and bullying come from? Why do people think that writing a children’s book is easier, or takes less skill, than writing for adults? Is it the shorter length? The illustrations? The age of the main characters? The age of the readers?

I think one of the main factors at work is the intended audience.

Most adults perceive children as being unsophisticated and incapable of following a complicated story—ergo, the novels written for them must be simplistic. While it’s true that complex critical thinking skills develop over time, and what’s understandable for a preschooler is certainly different for a middle schooler, the vast majority of junior high aged readers can follow the twists and turns of a complicated plot if they are drawn in to the story. Harry Potter, of course, comes to mind. The plot traverses (soon to be) seven books and multiple characters, holding the rapt attention of the Playstation Generation. But perhaps J.K. Rowling’s creation, and the eighteen wheelers filled with books, midnight release parties, and Pentagon-level security, isn’t the best defender of the children’s market. After all, it has blown the genre conventions to smithereens.

E.B. White, regular contributor to The New Yorker, and author of children’s classics such as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan might be a better champion for the complexities of children’s titles. His books deal with life and death, responsibility and protection, and finding one’s way in a hard-to-navigate world—not exactly child’s play. In a 1969 interview with The Paris Review, he explained, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick and generally congenial readers on earth.” But even he might not be the best champ—his books were published at a different time, when slick marketing, colorful packaging, and “edgy” content weren’t the norm. Contemporary critics rail against the Gossip Girls series, citing them as “fluff” or “trash,” depending on the reviewer’s angle. And those YA novels are leaps—and decades–away from White’s quiet middle grade stories about barn animals and mouse-boy adventures. However, aren’t there “fluffy” and “trashy” titles on the adult shelves, too?

John Green, author of the 2006 Printz-winning Looking for Alaska and the Printz honor book An Abundance of Katherines, might have the best answer to critics of the genre. In his July 12 interview on PopMatters.com, he says,

Almost everyone who dismisses contemporary teen literature hasn’t read much of it. So it doesn’t bother me at all, really. I wish people would read more of the ambitious YA novels being published right now, but I also wish people would read more of the ambitious adult novels being published right now.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to—ignorance of what’s available for young people to read–and it’s only by experiencing the wonderful, innovative, heartbreaking work of contemporary writers for children that the perception will start to change.

I admit that I’m biased. I write for middle grade, or “tween,” readers—the 9-12 age bracket. When my colleague asked why I chose that group (and, to be fair, she’s not the only one who’s asked—just the most recent) my response was along the lines of “because that’s the voice I gravitate towards,” or “those are the stories I have to tell,” both of which are true. However, the part I didn’t say, that’s harder to explain, are the feelings of joy and passion that books generate in readers of that age. Many kids dive into novels, bringing characters to life outside the boundaries of the story in a way that few adults have the time, inclination, imagination, or attention to do in their own reading. Kids stuff beloved titles under their pillows, carry them around in their backpacks, knock them into the tub or cover them in dirt on the playground. As a writer, it’s a privilege to engage that type of reader—one who loves their book to a worn, spine-cracked mess, who allows the story to share space with his or her daily life.

Maybe one day the demeaning questions to children’s book writers will stop, or we’ll wake up and agree that all writing, regardless of audience, genre, or style, takes intense effort on behalf of the author, but I don’t think so. In the meantime, bring on the bullies. We can take ’em.

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Erin Dionne, co-editor of Bread and Circus, is the author of the forthcoming novel Beauty Binge from Dial Books for Young Readers. Available in spring 2009.

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