Writing for Children Or, accept that childhood sucks if you want to write good children's lit

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If you remember your childhood as idyllic, you are remembering it wrong. I say this unequivocally.

If you think it was easy, I don’t believe you.

That doesn’t mean you didn’t have a happy childhood, or a mostly happy childhood. Or that it’s not possible to have a happy childhood—whatever you consider a happy childhood to be. But the idea that childhood is a carefree time of blissful innocence is more a product of nostalgia than the actual experience of being a kid. Being a kid hurts.

Childhood is a time of pure sensation—discovering ideas and experiences for the first time. What many people who idealize their childhoods ignore is that we experience pain in the same unfiltered way that we experience joy. But since childhood is a series of everyday joys and traumas, for the sake of survival, we’re hardwired to be resilient. There are limits to this resilience, events that are so traumatic that they stick with us for the rest of our lives, but the everyday extremes of joy and sorrow—of pain and pleasure without precedent and without filter—is what it is to be a kid.

Kids are powerless. They are at the complete mercy of adults. They are constantly being told not only what they can and can’t do, but the difference between the way they imagine the world, and the way it truly works. Imagination is encouraged of course, up to the point where practical reality must by necessity intervene. The older you get, the more that practical reality takes over, as you learn to become more and more responsible for your own fate. Nothing about this process is easy.

So what does this have to do with writing for children?

The best children’s literature addresses the pain and powerlessness of being a kid and gives that power back to them. Even a seemingly simple book like Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s classic Goodnight Moon is about the importance and acceptance of loss. The bunny says “good night” to each object in the room as he goes to bed. With each “good night,’ the bunny, the child’s proxy, is reassured that the world will be the same when he wakes up, but that yes, for a while, it will cease to be.

Books for children can teach, but I don’t think that’s their purpose. Every children’s book doesn’t have to teach, or be a morality tale. If you write about pain literally and objectively, not only is it going to be pedantic, it’s going to be boring. Kids know when they’re being taught or preached to, rather than entertained. Good children’s lit should be good stories first, but to be a good story, it has to have truth. To resonate, it has to reflect our real experience in some way.

Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are suggests the real pain and powerlessness of childhood, but through the metaphor of a child’s power fantasy. In Max’s world, the Wild Things embody all of his wildness, his sense of freedom. In his ordinary life he’s discouraged and punished for being wild, but in his fantasy, he’s the ruler of the Wild Things, and is himself the wildest of them all. He’s free from everyone who has ever told him “no.” And in the end—and most importantly—he is still protected, still safe. No matter how wild he is, his mother provides him hot soup and a warm bed.

This isn’t a story with a moral, but it does have a moral center.

No one can take your power away from you. No one can take your freedom away from you. Not completely. Even though again and again the world will tell us “no,” there’s still that part of us that belongs to us, the identity through which we can assert our freedom. And in the best of worlds, our parents provide us with a safe place to be ourselves. Our natural wildness will never overtake us, as long as we have that safe place. Our wildness needs to be tamed if we are to survive, but no one will ever take it away.

Good literature—and children’s literature should first and foremost be good literature—must also be honest. And if you are writing for children, you must write with the understanding and acceptance that they are not precious. That childhood is not precious. As soon as you let go of childhood as a special island where pain does not exist and is not relevant, you will be able to write stories that reflect the experience of real children. Or at least, you’ll be one step closer.

Images from Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Harper Collins, and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, Harper Collins.

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About Jed Alexander

Jed Alexander grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where he first discovered his love of books at his local public library. Jed went on to earn his degree in illustration at San Jose State University where he studied under veteran illustrators Barron Storey and John Clapp.

After working for more than ten years in the editorial field for such publications as LA WeeklyThe Sacramento News and Review, and The Santa Cruz Metro, Jed returned to his first love: Children’s literature. He has since done work for Nickelodeon and Cricket Magazine. He is currently represented by Abigail Samoun at Red Fox Literary. His first self-published book (Mostly) Wordless was financed by a successful fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.

He lives in Davis, California with his wife Regina, his best friend and favorite person in the world.

5 Comments

  1. Pat Kahn on December 20, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Good article, Jed! Thanks for writing it.

  2. Jed Alexander on December 20, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks! And thanks for reading it!

  3. binakapoor on December 20, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    spot on Jed

  4. Jed Alexander on December 21, 2013 at 8:52 am

    On another thread, someone mentioned that I hadn’t brought up the inherent sweetness or tenderness of these books. Here was my response:

    The idea with the article was to address an aspect of these books that isn’t generally discussed. If the audience is familiar with the books–and I deliberately chose two of the most popular children’s books out there–they already know that they’re about tenderness and caring. Just reading Goodnight Moon carries with it this magic act of caring, making the reader, the parent, a participant in consoling the child in a way few books can.

    empowering kids with stories like these is an act of tenderness, of caring, but in doing so effectively, they also have to acknowledge the child’s powerlessness. Ignore this, and the story is half empty. There’s no moral center. Especially if the adults lead the kids.

    For example, Kevin Henkes Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, has no moral center. The adult guides the kid to a social lesson. The kid is compliant, and doesn’t really have her own agency. It’s all about conformity. This is the worst kind of kid’s book.These kinds of books are just another way to take away children’s power, and can be genuinely harmful. I can’t emphasize enough how much I despise books like these.

    Sometimes empowering kids can be reflected in the simple concept of having a secret from adults, like The Polar Express, or even aspects of Peter Pan and Mary Poppins. Kids see something adults, or the adults around them, can’t. That’s another version of powerless.

    Sacharine sweetness like Give a Mouse a Cookie, is also a poor choice for a kid, a book for sentimental adults rather than truly written for children.

    The antidote to a book like Give a Mouse a Cookie is Raymond Briggs The Man.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Man-Red-Picture-Books/dp/009910881X

    The Man has a more complex relationship with the kid. The kid makes decisions regarding this relationship with a possibly unwanted houseguest, both in the consequences, and the way he addresses them, allowing him to be a kind of parent, but also to act as a parent never would. The Cat in the Hat has a parallel to this book in many ways. Both the mischief, and the secret are key.

    ALWAYS let kids choose their own books when there’s an opportunity. Libraries are wonderful this way. Take care that you aren’t giving a kid a book because you think it’s “good for them.” Ask yourself if the book your getting them is for you–because you think it’s sweet, or has a lesson to teach. That’s not a gift, but an act of selfishness. Give kids good books when you can, but not books that you deem to be good for them.

  5. Jed Alexander on December 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

    We can all do better when we make books for kids in this regard. It’s an important thing we’re doing. Don’t take it lightly. Try to write honestly and genuinely, and be honest as you can with yourself as a person who experiences what they’re experiencing. It’s good to question yourself, and your motives, and to stay clear of condescension. Write for people, not children. Don’t teach. Give.

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