I was recently asked in an interview if writing for children was difficult. I’ve heard other writers claim writing for children was more difficult than writing for adults and I can’t imagine how that is true. Of course I write poetry, which is probably the most demanding form of writing so anything is easier than that. One mistake can ruin a poem. However, I find the only mistake that it is impossible to recover from is boring them. Imprecise language, over the top alliteration, preciousness, even go- for- broke sentimentality can all be forgiven by children if the story entertains them. Not true of serious poetry readers. So I don’t find writing for children all that difficult at all.
The question any childrens’ book author gets asked the most is how is writing for children different than writing for adults. I suspect there are many similarities, and also many differences in the answers writers give, but as someone who wrote exclusively for adults until recently, the dichotomy between what is appropriate for young readers and what is right for adult readers is rather clear. It’s not much different than what is appropriate speech at the pub with your mates versus what is appropriate having brunch with your grandmother. Words have meanings, and when writing for children the meanings of words are vital. Okay, that’s not much of an insight, but as someone who has written everything from zombie screenplays where the most grotesque and explicit descriptions of people being devoured, to adult novels where every perversion on the human menue was permissable, nay, essential to keeping a reader’s interest, the difference between what is right for a young reader is not only important, but could keep one out of jail.
Also, there are heavy expectations about what children want. Believe me, I asked before I started writing my first children” book, Atrocities from A To Z. I asked librarians, I asked other childrens’ writers. Just for fun, I even asked some actual children. And the reults of my questioning was you can’t go wrong with the following list of topics: poop, farts, snot, cooties, belches and garbage. Alright, I thought to myself, I understand why zombies eating brains might not be a topic suitable for a young reader, but why are bodily functions, toxic substances and bad poetry so permissable? Why treat children like fools, or future customers for the drek culture they will be exposed to in modern society? I know some children, and the ones I know don’t seem to be stupid, Sure, they like a fart joke, but they also have a remakable capacity to be enraptured by science, music, philosophy, and all the hard stuff we sometimes come to avoid as adults. They haven’t been told yet that they don’t like poetry or Mozart or can’t understand quadratic equations or organic chemistry. I don’t want to short-sell minds like that by writing words that are anything but a challenge and an invitation to explore words and all the places they can take us. They can learn all they need to know about bodily functions on the playground, I’d rather lead them down the path of becoming lifelong adventurers and explorers of all that the written word can lead them to.
That’s a pretty high-fallutin’ answer. Yes, it is. And the reason for that is when I write for children I’m writing for children I know. Then I’m extending the same credit for being intelligent human beings I give them to all children. These are future readers of Shakespeare and Voltaire and Schopenhauer and Hawking. They may go places I could never dream of in my writing and I owe them the best I can offer.
So, how did I start writing for children? Seems like an obvious place would be to read what other people have written for children. Sort of get a lay of the land of the modern market. I didn’t do that. Because I couldn’t care any less what other people are writing for children. I didn’t care when i was a child. I didn’t read children’s books. It may be heresy to admit this, but I’ve never read Shel Silverstein or Richard Scary. I saw other kids reading those books, but from the first moment I entered a library I wanted nothing more than to devour every book no one else was reading. I started at the Mary Morgan Library in Byron, Illinois by reading an entire shelf of biographies in plain brown casing. Jim Bridger, Abraham Lincoln, Molly Ptcher.
I imagine all writers have this similar experience and go through this exact metamorphosis. First, they are encouraged to write by teachers who give them a silly form to fill in to complete a “poem.” This literary masterpiece is intended to be taken home and given a place of prestige on the refrigerator, BUT should any child start to taking writing seriously and even be so brazen as to read books in her free time or (gasp) write poems just for the fun of it, the literary police are called in. Assessments are made. Threats are levied. The sad fact is that after being taught the basic building blocks of reading and grammar the educational system seem to do everything in its power to dissuade children from being avid readers or writers. By early adolescence anyone who persists in these proscribed activities often has to do so in solitary shame. And that is shame.
So, if my concept of children’s literature wasn’t formed by reading Silverstein or Scary, where did I get my ideas? Aside from real books, I’ll tell you… Tom T Hall. That’s right, country music artist Tom T Hall. Because both of my parents worked, I was left in the care of my grandmother, and the second that door closed we started listening to country music, and often Tom T Hall.863RXE45XMQ4