Adrienne Kress is the author of ALEX AND THE IRONIC GENTLEMAN, and her new book TIMOTHY AND THE DRAGON’S GATE is out this week!
As a writer of middle grade novels, I probably get this question most often: “Why do you write for children?” Actually that’s probably the second most common question I get. The first most common question is, “So are you the next JK Rowling?” which I could never find an appropriate answer to until I just started replying, “Yes.” At any rate. This second most common question of why I write for children has always been a very interesting one to me, and one which I would like to discuss now.
First I would like to discuss the nature of the question. Often it comes out of a genuine curiosity – why do I like that particular genre, kind of like “Why do you write mysteries, western, literary” etc. But it can also come from a place of total confusion where truly the question is, “Why do you write for children instead of adults?”
It is a question that supposes that in an ideal world, an author’s first choice would obviously be to write for adults, because those are the “real” books. I mean, let’s face it, there is a stigma attached with writing books that aren’t for adults. There is also a stigma attached to writing genre fiction (SF/Fantasy) or romance books. In general, it is widely known that there are certain genres out there that don’t, for whatever reason, earn the same respect as commercial or literary fiction. This can be best demonstrated, I think, in a recent round table for The New Yorker, where in their attempt to discuss and praise a YA novel, the members of the round table manage to insult an entire genre with sweeping generalizations and total misinformation, calling the genre “facile” and “boring”.
Why it is that otherwise seemingly intelligent people are so determined to put down entire genres altogether boggles my mind. I truly don’t know why anyone of reasonable intelligence would make such generalizations. The whole point in having a thoughtful mind is understanding that there are good and bad elements to most everything, that making generalizations is the complete opposite of thoughtful logical analysis.
At any rate, because of these prejudices, I often do get the question.
And this is my answer:
I don’t write for children.
Yes, I am incredibly fortunate that one of the side effects of my writing is that I get to meet with some of the most amazing kids out there. That I get to be a source of inspiration to children around the world (which is still a little overwhelming for me). No author could ask for more. But in all honesty, I write in a genre that I happen to really love.
So what I’m doing, actually, is not so much writing for children as writing what I enjoy.
The question then becomes: What do I enjoy about children’s books?
I have never once had to explain to a child why it is possible for my story to have tall ships and laptops in the same universe. Why there is an Extremely Ginormous Octopus having conversations with people in a world where the rest of the animals behave as typical animals and no one blinks an eye. But I have had adults balk at those elements. And I have explained these odd juxtapositions simply as typical elements of “Magical Realism” (because that is truly my genre). Children are so much more willing just to sit back and enjoy the story, instinctively understanding that not everything has to have an explanation and that, in fact, sometimes a lack of explanation makes the story that much more fun.
I love the whimsy in children’s books. I love the saturated emotions, the dealing with real issues without overcomplicating them and over thinking them. I love how dark children’s books can be, how the stakes can often be life and death. And yet despite these elements I love how unsentimental children’s books are (contrary to popular belief of some writers who think children’s books must be morality tales, all sugary sweet; kids for the most part don’t put up with that nonsense). Children’s books don’t have time to revel in their self-importance. Kids are a tough audience and they’ll turn their backs if the story is less than stellar.
I love the humour in many children’s books I’ve read, the originality, the freedom. And I love the writing. Yes, you read right. I love a well-written children’s book. Because the actual writing in a children’s book can – surprise! – actually be good. The fact that a phrase comes across as simple, or straightforward, does not mean it doesn’t take a great deal of effort and talent to turn that phrase. Some children’s book authors can capture an exact moment, an exact feeling, in such a lovely straightforward way – but in an entirely original way as well.
Children’s books are also some of the last instances of the survival of an oral tradition. We rarely read books aloud anymore, nor sit around the fire and have someone tell a good old yarn. We read to ourselves, isolated in our own little world. But children’s books get read aloud. Parents read them to their kids, teachers to their students. For this reason many children’s book authors have great fun playing with language, with interesting words that are fun to say. There is a real love of language in children’s books.
In general there is a certain level of passion and excitement in the world of children’s books. It is a world that is, above all, interested in entertaining. I am not saying that kidlit authors aren’t interested in educating as well, but if the book isn’t entertaining you are going to lose your audience really fast and so lose out on any educating opportunities. The focus is so clearly on the audience and not on the author.
Finally there is also one rather grown-up pleasure for me as a kidlit writer: in the children’s book community, the authors, publishers etc, are just so wonderfully supportive of each other, so excited about what they do. It’s a community of warmth and generosity where, for once, the word “community” doesn’t have to stretch itself out of shape to be an apt description.
All of this is why I love children’s books.
Except that the books I read aren’t “children’s books”; they are “Adrienne likes this stuff books”. They are books meant for whoever enjoys them. I so often also get emails from adults who tell me they enjoy my work “even though they are meant for children”. Well, no. You enjoyed it, it diverted you, it was therefore meant for you.
The same can be said of any genre that one unexpectedly enjoys. We have to categorise things for practicality’s sake, but truly, every book is unique, every book has its own pros and cons. And that’s a wonderful thing. It might make life easier to put everything in its place, less messy, but, to me at least, doing so makes things a lot less interesting.
And a lot less fun.
Jenyfer Matthews says
I have the greatest respect for children’s authors. It’s not easy to write a compelling and interesting story in such a short format. I’ve read too many trite, PC, and pedantic children’s books to my two young children lately not to appreciate a gem when I find one (and the author who wrote it!)
Adrienne, this is a timely post for me. Only yesterday I received a very generous personal rejection on a 50 page sample that praised my story telling, gave some great insight to improving the work, and suggested I try to sell it as a YA novel. Like you, I didn’t write it “for children,” not even my most recent novel that I plan to try to sell as a middle grade. I just wrote the story I wanted to tell about characters I loved.
Great post and I wish you much good luck with Timothy. My copy is on order!
“Children’s books don’t have time to revel in their self-importance.”
Well said. This is why the only fiction I read (or write) is MG and YA. It gets to the point.
Tish Cohen says
In case you haven’t read Adrienne’s first novel, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, do yourself a favor and buy both. Adrienne’s writing has been compared to Lemony Snicket. These are brilliant books that adults will love as much as their kids.
Great post, Adrienne!
Tish Cohen says
Oops. I said “These are brilliant books that adults will love as much as their kids.”
Umm, okay, so they might not love the books as much as they love their kids. Because that would be wrong. But they’ll love them as much as their kids do!
Writing for children is one of THE most important careers in the world. Why? Because these writers train and shape the adult readers of tomorrow. If writers for children don’t create works kids can love and spend time with, heaven help the rest of us clods who write for adults who haven’t developed a love for reading.
BTW, I don’t think there’s any better stuff out there than some of the “writing for children.” Rick Riordan’s books are inspired by God(s)…And I look forward to looking into Adrienne’s corpus of work.
Julian Meteor says
Children reading the WRONG books can be HARROWING.
I am PETRIFIED of owls because of my childhood.
Wow. I am slightly overwhelmed by all the responses, and genuinely thrilled that my post rang true to so many of you. One of my reasons for writing it was that I knew I wasn’t exactly the only one out there who felt that way, and I have most obviously been proven right here in this comment section. Thank you all so much (for your support and also for those of you saying such lovely things about my books, that is most flattering)!
Rupe-Boyd – there are some really great communities for children’s book authors out there. I would recommend SCBWI (they have an excellent website, but also host some fabulous conventions). If you are Canadian CANSCAIP is such a wonderful organisation. And online we have the amazing forum devoted entirely to children’s writing: http://www.verlakay.com (nicknamed the Blue Boards). Hope that is enough to start you off!
I hold Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle as one of my favorite books.
For me it’s all about the story, which lands a lot of YA and Science Fiction books in my bed with me.
I also like ideas and there is a stack of non-fiction books in there with me too.
I really appreciated that you write about characters you love.
But I do have a question about YA:
What is considered too adult for a YA? Are you advised not to even lightly go certain places? Are certain adult parts of these WIPs edited out regularly?
I mean like when the Prince and Princess get married and have a child, is that process just glossed over? Voila! Look a baby!
Just curious. It seemed that my daughter had a LOT more adult material in some of her YA books. I admit I was a bit shocked to discover how much, but still didn’t find it as offensive as Catcher in the Rye.
gk risser says
Bravo Adrienne! Well said! And by the way, I had the pleasure of making your acquaintance at the December CANSCAIP meeting—your passion and enthusiasm are infectious. Alex is at the top of my reading pile.
Nancy D'Inzillo says
It’s interesting to watch what genres get bashed, because much of it echoes which genres the university academics deem “trash” versus “literature.” Having been an English undergraduate for five years, I was lucky enough to encounter several academics who are open to studying the depth of formally disrespected genres, such as comic books, but some of my favorite profs still hold tight to more elitist attitudes about “high literature.”
The exciting thing is that, over time, for academics and readers alike, as more people read and begin to write critical analysis of these less revered genres (like Adrienne did here with children’s books), less people are likely to wonder “why write children’s books (or sci fi or westerns)?”
As I like to point out, certainly children’s books or fantasy or x genre have their dross, but there’s plenty of “literary fiction” that’s crap too.
The harder argument is “why write fiction?” when talking to someone who follows nonfiction and views fiction as escapism. Maybe someone can come up with an equally articulate argument against that attitude, because despite the many arguments I could offer, it’s hard to change someone’s mind on that issue.
Anon 9:42 asks:
“… It seemed that my daughter had a LOT more adult material in some of her YA books. I admit I was a bit shocked to discover how much, but still didn’t find it as offensive as Catcher in the Rye…”
YA is a great category in that it has any type of book you want. From sweet and innocent books that are clean, wholesome reads, to light and airy chick-lit type books, to sex, drugs, F-boms, suicide, teen pregnancy, and all the things that life entails. YA is not all one or the other.
I’m confused as I try and remember what could’ve been offensive about The Catcher in the Rye… but, no matter, there is much to choose in the YA section. Go. Read. It’s the only way to find out.
Adrienne! Thanks for stopping by. I discovered what a rich world books for children is when my oldest was born, especially as she has grown. Now it’s about all I want to read. I had so much of Homer and Vergil and Proust and Faulkner, etc., that I was ready for a change of pace.
People are really missing out if they are thinking they are too high brow to read and enjoy “children’s” lit.
I found Catcher in the Rye really really really depressing and had trouble handling it. I thought it was too adult for me as a teen as my required reading…kind of like being directed to pass through a swamp and not having a proper guide for how to avoid the alligators.
Since my question, I looked up YA on wikipedia and found some helpful explanations as well as several interesting articles about language at this link:
under articles (no 2)
Devon Ellington says
In one of those lovely episodes of synchronicity, I come here, read and comment on your post, and, later that night, receive a contract — I’ve sold my very first YA horse racing mystery!
It’s not my first sale, but my first YA sale.
Continued success to ALL of us!
Yes, this is an inspiring post.
It caused me to dig deeper
AND it reminded me about my own heart
and the place it belongs in my own writing.
Thank you, Adrienne.
Well said, Adrienne! I loved ALEX and am looking forward to meeting TIMOTHY upon my next trip to the bookstore!
(Hmm, My word verification is “ranted” … why couldn’t they have saved that for a time when I wanted to rant?)
Wilson Family says
I like how you said you don’t write for children. That made the most sense to me. I never set out to write a middle grade children’s novel, I just had a story to tell. It wasn’t till it was almost done that a friend of mine said it sounded like a middle grade novel. I had no idea what that was. After some research I found out she was right. I’m absolutely excited about writing for children. Alot of children’s books have so much substance to them. It’s a privelidge to write the words that may influence the next generation.
Eden Sharpe says
Beautifully said! Thanks.