Several years ago I wrote a book for adult readers. (You can read more about My Enemy's Cradle, historical fiction set in a Nazi Lebensborn maternity home.) Since then, I've been shocked at how often I'm asked some form of the question, "Now that you can write for adults, you aren't still going to write for children are you?"
This is such an insulting question - to children's authors, to children's books, and to children themselves! - because it presumes there's a hierarchy in genres and that children's books are somehow easier to write, or of lesser value, than their adult counterparts, neither of which is true. It also shows a complete lack of understanding of what it takes to create fine books for young readers and of what roles those books can fill. Besides all that, you can't "write for children" because as Maurice Sendak said, "They're much too complicated." You can only follow the stories that call you, and I feel incredibly lucky that most of mine end up being books that children enjoy, because they're by far better readers than adults.
Still, I'm always grateful to get the question - Why would you write for children? - because it forces me to think deeply about what I choose for my life's work. And I do that - think deeply about writing for children - because I've found that the quality of my life depends on really understanding, and finding meaning and passion in, this thing I do for most of my waking hours.
I think that's true for most of us - we're trying to become better informed and more inspired about our chosen work - and when I speak to educators and librarians about children's books, I'm always fascinated by how many areas of overlap and connection we have.
The following are some of the topics I cover in these engagements...
HOW TO ENGAGE READERS
This is where teachers and writers have exactly the same goal: how to get a reader to pick up a book and read it willingly. If I can't hook a reader right away, I don't have a job, so I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to do it, and I'm happy to share what I've learned. Children read for pretty much the same reasons adults read:
BOOKS AS WINDOWS AND MIRRORS
- Pleasure (which can include safely experiencing terror or regret or grief, not just laughter or fun.)
- Curiosity - humans are wired to want to know what happens next!
- Self-understanding - People read to find out who they are, and who they could be. By presenting characters kids can relate to, books say to the reader, "The tribe is wide and varied, and look! You're already a member! And look! There are lots of other paths to try, also!""
- Connection with Others - We humans are pack animals, and having successful relationships is high on our priority list. Books that show people forming friendships, working through differences, finding common ground or exploring new human experiences together are extremely attractive to kids as they grow.
- Information - Children are born into small worlds which expand rapidly - family, neighbor, school, and beyond. They value books which help them understand how the world works.
Authors often use the term "Windows and Mirrors" with respect to books. It's a good way to think about how books serve children - as mirrors to who they are, and as windows onto the larger world and who they might become in it. In both cases, the glass must be clear and free of distortion, which means the author has a strict moral duty to be honest. The author must also be kind, because if we're trying to say to our readers, "Look in the mirror, here you are, a member of the human tribe! Look out the window - the tribe is wide and varied, look at the choices!" We'd better be kind about the flaws and struggles we're about to portray.
THE ROLE OF FICTION IN DEVELOPING EMPATHY
Humans are wired to learn things best when presented in story form. We're also wired to care about things most that way, too. All the art forms are great at eliciting empathy - a single image of a polar bear stranded on a melting ice flow can do more to activate people than a thousand pages of dry data on global warming - but fiction is probably the best. A work of fiction asks the reader to experience dramatic events through someone else's heart and soul. If a book is written well, the reader becomes the main character for a period of time, and the result is always a broadened empathy for the human condition.
MORALITY IN BOOKS
Good books are about important things: values, ethics, choices, tests, emotional challenges and growth. Memorable characters care about things - they may be flawed, but they always have a moral compass. This makes it tricky for authors - we can't shy away from moral issues, yet at the same time we have a duty to stay away from proselytizing.
The best books ask readers to recognize themselves and connect with other humans, never separate from them. Good books raise and explore questions and respect readers enough to let them find the answers. As the poet W.S. Merwin said, "Questions are more interesting than answers." Answers turn people away. A story that preaches is an answer to a question not asked.
HOW FAMILIARITY WITH STORY STRUCTURE CAN HELP A CHILD PROCESS AND COMMUNICATE HIS OWN EXPERIENCES
The "Hero's Journey" that Joseph Campbell wrote about - the plot structure at the heart of all stories - is also the journey of life. For all of us, there are calls to adventure, challenges and ordeals, and we will face these ordeals and return to our lives changed and bearing the elixer. Along the way, there will be enemies and allies and mentors and tricksters, and we'd be wise to learn to recognize them.
The arc of fictional action is often a mirror of the character's emotional arc - if kids can learn to see this in their own lives, it will give them courage. Becoming familiar with story structure allow them to see meaning in their own journeys. Best of all, it will allow them to share their experiences in a form the tribe will understand.
Writing the Clementine series has been the greatest honor of my career, and I love to talk about it. Clementine represented a big change for me - for the first time, I wanted to tell the story of regular people living regular lives and facing regular challenges. In looking around the field and my own body of work, I felt a lack of stories that reflected what I've come to call "the redeeming grace of the ordinary."
Clementine is a very privileged kid - she lives in a functional, stable, supportive family with functional, stable, supportive adults in her school system - a rarity in fiction. This is because wanted to write about a kid with challenges - she's modeled after a family member, who had attention issues - but with a positive attitude and great self-esteem, and to be honest about that, I needed to give her a lot of healthy support.
Now the smart writer doesn't do that. The smart writer takes away the functional adults in order to create tension and sympathy for the main character. At first I thought there might not be much of an audience for such an ordinary kid in such ordinary circumstances, but I've been stunned at how beloved she's become. Her very ordinariness seems to allow a wide cross-section of children and families to see themselves reflected in the books. It's made me realize that everyone needs their story to be told - it stamps their passport into the world of humanity.
ARTS INTEGRATION IN LITERACY EDUCATION
My son has synesthesia, a neurological condition in which "stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway." He has the color-graphemic type - seven is linked to yellow, for instance - and it's totally benign and really fascinating. Like many synesthesiacs, Caleb is a gifted musician and artist, and his creativity is often integrated. Learning about his condition sparked my interest in arts integration in education, and through that I became involved with the DREAM (Developing Reading Education through Arts Methods) Institute of California State University - San Marcos.
The DREAM project has been wildly successful - literacy test scores of the underprivileged kids involved rose dramatically after being exposed to arts integration in their reading programs - and of course I'm all for that. But as an author, arts integration appeals to me for other reasons, as well.
We authors think of our books not as monologues, but rather as the openings of conversations: conversations between authors and readers, between characters and readers, between readers and other readers, and between readers and their communities. We're rarely privy to these conversations, but we all share the hopes that they include as many voices as possible, and integrating the arts into reading education achieves this beautifully. When a class puts on a musical about Clementine, for instance, kids who are handy with building sets, kids who play instruments or sing, kids who can create puppets or costumes, kids who like to act all get to be part of the Clementine conversation, instead of just the ones best at reading. Using the arts also expands the author's story and allows it to become a unique expression of each class.
I stay connected with the California schools involved in DREAM education, and I'm happy to talk about the things I've come to learn through their successes.