When children—or adults for that matter—gather round to listen to a picture book, or a poem, I never know what will happen. The younger the age , the more unpredictable an audience is. Babies fill their diapers. Toddlers pick their noses. Little boys might show me they can cross their eyes. Stick out their tongues. Little girls might show me they've lost a tooth. Lift their dresses over their heads. And someone almost always inevitably ...toots. (If you think I'm exaggerating, ask any elementary teacher.)
Then there's spitball throwers, pencil jabbers, knee huggers, belly growlers, belching burpers, bum wigglers and yes: The Tantrum Monster. Sometimes this monster inhabits the body of a child, but more often—this monster lurks in the form of an adult who wants a certain child to settle down, sit still and listen. To not pick their nose, not wiggle their bums and not interrupt THE STORYTELLER.
Not to worry, I want to say, it's okay, I've pretty much seen it all but by all means feel free to take your child to a galaxy far far away (for a while) if they're screaming over the top or become disruptive to others. You will know because everyone will be giving you dirty looks. These looks mean l-e-a-v-e. But I never say that and never will because, well:
This chaos of storytelling is part of the joy of it. It is not interruption: it's conversation. Exchange. The unpredictability is delicious. We do need to learn audience manners, yes, but I expect, welcome and even invite a certain amount of... interaction.
Case in point: Take a peek at this if you want to see what can happen when a child (who knew my book) decided to join me in the telling.
I'm sooo glad no one asked her to sit down! It was my favourite reading of Mabel Murple ever. (Me and Harriet, THe Road Show?) What if everyone read aloud to themselves at least once a week? Savoured the words in the air? Welcomed the sound of their own voices?
If you're writing a book (not just one for children—any book or essay or blog even), reading aloud helps fine tune the cadence of your work. Even if the work is for adults and most likely read in solitude and silence, the text still has a pacing that depends upon how sentences are constructed, how text ebbs and flows. If you're a reader, appreciating an author's words aloud is a whole different reading experience. I know book clubs are thriving , but I'd love to see more adult "read aloud reading clubs" springing up the same way. Reading aloud to others from a book you love seems to me another way to celebrate both storytelling and books in community. I hope to start one with friends next year. I have a lot of books wanting readers to read them.
We had a wonderful launch of PARL's Writer in Residency in Stellarton on October 31st. Mums and Dads and babes in arms gathered. Despite what I've said above, they were all exceptional LISTENERS. I tried out the newest book Singily Skipping Along and was delighted when most of the children listening wanted to come up and touch the texture of the page.
The text is illustrated with hooked rug art by Deanne Fitzpatrick. The poem/chant in the book is an invitation to play and interact with the text, texture and colour of the book through a listener's body and senses. Seeing the children react by touching was... well... touching. Currently, the rugs from the book are being auctioned online and all proceeds go to L'Arche Atlantic. Deadline for bids is December 1st.
In Antigonish, at that fabulous library, the first workshop for PARL was for adults and entitled: If You Want To Write For Children. The title is a nod to the book I call my writing bible If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. When I first found this book, it was like I found the person who believed everything I did about writing. Ueland echoes so much of what I believe about the reasons we want to write, about creative process, about authentic voice and about how vulnerable we can be, especially in the beginning, as we put our voices forth. Listen, for example, to Ueland here:
The only good teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is: "Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out." And if you have no such friend—and you want to write—well, then you must imagine one.”― Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write
At some point, your best friend might become an editor who can point out where you've gotten lazy or boring or muddled. At first, however, just GET the story DOWN. As Uleand says, let more come out. This is why in workshops I concentrate on exercises I call First Burst pieces. We get pen moving without thinking too much and write.
We covered as much territory as we could in the time we had in Antigonish and I'll be doing the same this week in New Glasgow. I'll be available to comment on manuscripts one on one as the weeks go on. Here is a good place to start:
What is the most recent children's book you've read?
If you want to write for children you must read, read, read, read books for children. You do not have to take a course in children's literature—(but that's not a bad idea)—but you do have to immerse yourself in the world of children's books. And an even better question to leave you with:
What was your favourite children's book when you were a child? Why do you think it's your favourite?
Answering that means you begin to examine what your idea of excellence is.
Was it the book, the art, the context it was read in, the character, the theme? All of the above?
Hope you give me some thoughts in the comment section. Next "museletter" on Breathing and Stretching and Writing and some more book suggestions.
There was a day when children's literature was called kiddylitter and some English departments dismissed CL as an area of scholary study. I was in my infant days as a writer then, an undergrad with two children who were my captive audience. I wanted to concentrate on the study of the literature we were reading. Luckily, I found the work of Sheila Egoff, The Opies, Michelle Landsberg, Judith Saltman, Walter De LaMare's introduction to Come Hither and the brilliant criticism of Lissa Paul.
I was even more fortunate to have a professor at St. Thomas by the name of Dr. Russ Hunt. An extra-ordinary professor, a pioneer in the field of teaching, I'd call him somewhat of a radical for being one of the first to introduce children's literature as a credit course in an English Department. It's fair to say that Russ Hunt's class changed the course of my life. In graduate school I found Hilary Thompson who welcomed me with open arms when I said I wanted to do a master's thesis on well -- nonsense and nursery rhyme. I wanted to examine the children's poetry of Dennis Lee. I wanted to study the best kids poets from far away and long ago, but I wanted a live poet and a Canadian.The study took me years of reading after my course work, and, by the end I was calling it the FT. The F stood for... Fookin. In recent weeks, in three different discussions/interviews , I've been asked some really good and difficult questions about being a writer who writes in many genres. The best: "What was my answer when people assumed kids books were 'easier'? My answer was rude. http://blog.bookfridge.com/Well go write one and then see. Or go read my thesis."(Lordie. I am now a crotchety bunny in that bunny eat bunny world.)
So for the first time in a long time, I dipped into that master's thesis where I wanted to prove, I think, that profound truth could be found in the smallest verse. That distillation was an art form. That childrens' poetry was an aural/oral social tradition and depended upon community to have a life. And the human voice. I called it "utterature' not literature. (The noive I had!) Even if the genre I would be working in was 'a kind of folk art' as Lee told me in an inteview, I wanted to prove it was, in John Ciardi's words: Serious joy and worth putting under a critcal microscope. I was obligated first to explain (or maybe justify) this critical framework I was using. (Translate: r-e-s-p-e-c-t.)
In the poem, Thinking in Bed, Dennis Lee writes:
I am lying in bed
‘Cause I can't get out
‘Till I learn how to think
What I am thinking about.
~ Alligator Pie 40
Learning how to think what I was thinking about was the most crucial and challenging objective of my thesis but it’s that way for a lot of wrinkled brain types. So yes, that very first question “how do I approach the genre of children's literature critically?” almost silenced me. In A Kindercritical Mode of Responding, I outlined my critical philosophy. (That too, was inspired by Lee.) I’m surprised these many years later not just how I dared to put forth my own critical theory---I know now I was defending the genre and myself for travelling in this direction as a writer---but I’m just as surprised I still mostly agree with the words. Here, for anyone who might like this kind of conversation about children's poetry is a piece from Chapter One.
The Bat Poet by Randall Jarrell, is the story about a bat who would be poet. It is also an analogy for an artist’s search for authentic voice and vision, and it is about the need for an audience and the importance of audience response. Perhaps my favorite line of all is when the bat heaves a sigh and says: “The trouble isn’t making poems, the trouble is finding someone who will listen to them".
Art for art's sake doesn't quite satisfy the bat. He wants an audience. By the end of the story the bat is triumphant. He has found his audience, but most importantly, he draws on his own experience and all he has learned about making a poem and writes what can only be called a masterpiece poem for bats. It is, finally, the most authentic piece of writing he produces.
The bat's journey has been frustrating and isolating and along the way he learned not only that an audience was important but the way in which an audience responded made a difference. In an article entitled “Could you put in lots of holes? Modes of Response to Writing", Dr. Russell Hunt uses The Bat Poet to talk about responding to students’ writing. "The Bat Poet", he writes, "contains the most powerful dramatization I've seen of what seemed to me two entirely different modes of responding to writing.” One type of response Hunt calls “mockingbird” responses. This is why. In the story, the bat reads his first attempt at a poem to the mockingbird. The mockingbird has been the bat’s mentor, in a way. He has been listening to the mockingbird’s songs, mostly imitations of other barnyard creatures. The bat is inspired to begin to write poetry of his own. This is what happens after the mockingbird listens to the bat’s poem:
When he finished his poem the bat waited for the Mockingbird to say something; he didn't know why but he was holding his breath.
“Why, I like it,” said the mockingbird. “Technically, it's quite accomplished. The way you change the rhyme – scheme’s particularly effective."
The bat said: “It is?"
“Oh yes," said the mockingbird. "And it was clever of you to have that last line two feet short."
The bat said blankly: “Two feet short?"
"It's two feet short," said the mockingbird a little impatiently. "The next to the last line’s iambic pentameter and the last lines iambic trimeter."
The bat looked so bewildered that the mockingbird said in a kind voice; “An iambic foot has one weak syllable and one strong syllable"; the weak one comes first. The last line of yours has six syllables and the one before it has 10: when you shorten the last line like that you get the effect of the night holding its breath."
"I didn't know that," said the bat. I just made it like holding your breath.
"To be sure, to be sure!" said the mockingbird. "I enjoyed your poem very much. When you made up some more, do come round and say me another."
The bat said he would and fluttered home to his rafter. Partly he felt very good – the mockingbird had liked his poem – and partly he felt just terrible. He thought: why I might just as well it to the bats. What do I care how many feet it has? The Owl nearly kills me, and he says he likes the rhyme scheme!"
~ The Bat Poet 14 -15
As Hunt points out:
The mockingbird is positive, supportive, educational and kind: he refrains from actually suggesting ways to improve the writing, but he does take the time to help the bat towards more conscious awareness of his skills as a writer. What Jarrell foregrounds however, is the fact that his response is condescending, judgmental, and of no use to the aspiring poet, just as that of a teacher, or a peer who has been trained to be helpful, might. (30)
When the bat finally makes friends with a chipmunk and tests out his poem on the chipmunk, here's what happens:
The chipmunk said in a determined voice: "I'm going to bed earlier. Sometimes, when there's lots of nuts, I stay out until it's pretty dark, but believe me, I'm never going to again." (45)
Hunt says, "that through the chipmunk’s fear, the bat sees the poem works, that it does what it ought to do." And even more importantly, "it's clearly the chipmunk's response, not the mockingbird’s that encourages the bat to continue his career as bard." (31)
The next time the bat says a poem to the chipmunk, in fact, a poem about the chipmunk, the chipmunk replies with magic words: "Say it again." As listener, he wants to absorb more on the second go round and then begins to discuss what he likes and understands.
"Oh it's nice. It all goes in and out, doesn't it?"
The bat was so pleased he didn't know what to say.
“Am I really as red is that?”
“Oh yes, “ the bat said. (21)
The chipmunk is delighted with the simile in the poem even though he doesn't know it is a simile: "Red as leaves the wind blows off the maple/ Red as a fox…"
One of Hunt’s points in his article is that teachers need to be more chipmunk than mockingbirds in order for students writing to flourish, that this, in the end, is more real responding been basing the "construction of our artificial responses on how a theory of language might work."
As a student in several of Dr. Hunt’s classes, I know he put his theory into practice. Our university classroom was a place where we used "collaboration not to attend the form of discourse but to the substance" (Hunt 30). We wrote “to and for each other” to share what we learned and "not to demonstrate that we have learned it" (Hunt 29).
This is part of the background to my approach to the criticism of children's literature.
Children, in their response to text offered them, whether oral or written, are like the chipmunk. They will respond with likes or dislikes in a real way. They might not know a simile, but they might be delighted at the word picture it evokes in their minds. They might bounce along because the poem goes all in and out, happy enough without the knowledge that a dactyl is more than the dinosaur. And therefore the literature is doing what it was intended to do: communicating with and delighting its readers.
What happens very often when an adult critic begins to put a work under a critical microscope is that all of a sudden the mockingbird response is present. The text is examined as text. Even though reader-response theory has insisted that the work exists in the dynamic between text and reader and much critical work is taken into account the implied reader, far too often, criticism travels in a backwards loop away from the literature and into discourse that becomes interesting, insightful but sometimes, in fact--all too often, alienating. There are as many ways of looking at children's literature as there are literary theories and is even what Terry Eagleton calls a meta-criticism, criticism of criticism. Which is ironically enough what he ends up doing and the direction my discourse seems to be headed.
Time then to turn a corner by asking a question. Is there a way to critically discuss or approach the work of children's literature that doesn't violate the spirit of the genre? Is there a way to preserve the initial real response of the chipmunk (child) that uses the informed opinion of the mockingbird (critic)?
The answer, is of course, yes. I call it the kindercritical mode of responding. Criticism based on the teeter-totter principle. That is, the kindercritic balances chipmunk and mockingbird, adult and child, and writes from, explores the work from, that starting point. It is critical polyphony. The kindercritic, like the writer, must begin again as a child. In doing that, the spirit of the literature is preserved and the child in children's literature is not forgotten when an adult begins to respond to text defined as “children's literature."
This is a call to the almost mystical process writer's experience when their frame of reference is their child selves. Writers who write works considered children's literature often talk about the difference between writing "for children" or "from" the child or children still contained within their adult body, soul and psyche. Here are some of the ways in which some writers have described this process:
To get back to the essence of childhood you can only go down. You can only go in. Deep in. Down through all the deep, mystic intuitive layers of the subconscious back into your own childhood. And if you get deep enough, get basic enough, become again the child you were, it seems reasonable, but by way of the subconscious, you have come into what must be the universal child. Then and only then, do you write for that child. (Mendart DeJong Townsend, 75)
I have to go on what I know, not only about my own childhood then but about the child I was as he exists now. (Sendak, Only Connect 329)
First, just be a child before you grow up and let nothing interfere with that process. Write it all out of yourself and for yourself as you remember that weasel body with the eagle eyes. Never, never take the right phrase writing “for children” seriously. If you write “for” them you are lost. (McCord 53)
Like everyone, I have more than one child in me. I'm a two-year old; I'm a five-year-old, I'm a 10-year-old. Those kids are excited by things fearful or silly or whatever. Ideally what excites them gets written with the craft of an adult under the direction of the child. (Lee, Roots and Play 35)
For all these writers, then, the point of departure, the impulse from which the poem or novel or story was written, was getting in touch with, a connection with, some aspect of their child being. In many ways, it is a process of recollecting, or retrieving child self, or in the case of Lee, child selves. It is true that authors need not love children to write books children love, but they do need to be in touch with some aspect of their childhood selves. Writers cannot write as adults looking over the tops of children's heads and produce authentic work. They must connect with what might be called “kinderspirit.”
Kindercritics are no less rigorous in the remembering or recollecting of their own childhood selves. Whatever interest in the literary merits of the text critics might want to explore, kindercritics find a way to link the text to this audience.Whether the critical lens or framework is based on the literary theory of feminism, or deconstructionism, linguistics or a pyschoanalytical philosophy, the theory is always subservient to the objective of criticism eloquently espoused by Robert Bator: "If criticism of literature is to have any meaning at all, it must be primarily concerned with the nature of childhood, not just the nature shared by most children, but the diversity of childhood nature, too." (Signal 130)
If literature is an art form which offers insight into what it means to be human, then children's literature is an art form which offers his insight into what it means to be a child being in the world of the story or poem.
Maurice Sendak writes: "We can never know all there is to know about any one child. They’re formless fluid creatures – like moving water. You can’t stop one of them in midstream and find out exactly what is going on." (Only Connect 328) This is what kindercritics accept, but by holding a work under a critical microscope, they attempt to examine the mystery – for a moment, to stop the child – being in the story in midstream and try to find out what is going on.
"The Sweet Chorus of Ha, Ha, He,” a line from William Blake’s The Laughing Song is an image which (for me) evokes many voices within the one and the spirit of play which is ever present in children's poetry – rhymed or unrhymed, lyrical or narrative. nonsense or sensical.
For literary response is an activity of play, in the sense that J. Huizinga defines play: "It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to the rules freely accepted and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility." (Huizinga 132)
A kindercritical mode of responding is an active form of literary play which does not diminish the seriousness. Rather, "the contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness" (Huizinga 6) It is not necessary or desirable, when it comes to discussing children's literature to turn into what Dr. Russ Hunt calls, “a waiting, condescending, kindly mockingbird" (32).
It could be further argued that a kindercritical mode of responding, but putting kinder or child at the center, is, (pun intended) kinder towards the literature and audience it attempts to serve. It is not a relaxation of scholarly rigour, but a move towards allowing authentic voices to participate in discussions on children's literature. This might include teachers, parents, children, not just those who call themselves critics. Or simply, ideally, whenever possible, the teacher, parent, poet or child within the critic. The kindercritical mode of response opens up endless possibilities for discussion. In the spirit of play.
The kindercritical mode of responding demands polyphony which calls for sharing because: "the play mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion… Here, then we have the first characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact, freedom." (Huizinga 8).
http://www.stthomasu.ca/~hunt/batpoet.htm Acre, Allison. Dennis Lee's children's poetry." Descant, number 39, 1982. Bator, Robert. Signposts to Criticism of Children's literature. Chicago: 1983. Eagleton Terry. The function of criticism. Deptford, nor folk: Deptford press, 1985. Egoff, Sheila. Dennis Lee's Poetry for Children." Descant, number 39, 1982. Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton Yuki, 1971 Hentoff, Nat. "Among the wild things." Only connect: readings of children's literature. Egoff, Sheila, editor. Oxford: 1961. Huiziga, Johann. Homo Ludens. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Hunt, Russell A. "Could you put in lots of holes? Both of response to writing." Language Arts, volume 64, two, February 1987. Jarrell, Randall. Sendak, Maurice, illus. The Bat Poet. New York, New York: Macmillan, 1964. Landsberg, Michelle. Guide to children's books. Markham, Ontario: Petco in 1986 Lee, Dennis. Neufeld, Frank. Ilus. Alligator Pie. Toronto: Macmillan, 1972. Lee, Dennis. "Roots and play: writing as a 35-year-old children," Canadian children's literature, number four, 1976. McCord, David. Away and go: rhymes of the never was and always is. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968 Townsend, John. Written for children. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1974.
"Good book?" I asked. She sighed and gave me the evil eye.
"It's a biography of Elizabeth Bishop, research for my essay topic."
"Who's Elizabeth Bishop?" I asked innocently. Skye made a sound almost like a growl.
"A poet," she said, "my favourite, she's famous."
"Well I never heard of her. Does she live in D.C. or something?"
"She's dead," she snapped.
"Soooreee," I said.
"Well, she did live in D.C. and in Nova Scotia. I've been to her house in Nova Scotia in Great Village."
Skye showed me her bookmark. "Here's my favourite poem." She shoved the book in front of me.
"At the Fish Houses," she said.
"Nice," I said after I pretended to read it.
"So I want to go to the house she lived in D.C. And take a picture."
"Neat," I said, not meaning it really. Chasing after photos of old dead poets' houses? Fish Houses? All I could do was think of the smell.
- from Pluto's Ghost, Doubleday 2010 pg. 139
In the end, that's all the room on the page I gave over to fictional character Skye and her love of poetry and obsession with Elizabeth Bishop. All the days of reading Bishop, all the research, and in the end? One scene, a passage that illustrates the tension and contrast between Skye and the boy who loves her -- Jake Upshore. An angry kid without a mother, labelled early as "learning challenged", Jake's secretly a wannabe singer songwriter-- a poet at heart. We meet him as the book begins and he's just been arrested. His story is his song and confession, a kind of narrative poem. The telling helps him accept who he is, what has happened and helps him begin to heal his past and recent trauma. Except the journey is not that... easy or tidy. He's functionally illiterate.
As for photos of dead poets houses?
Picture a writer mid-novel, (translate: lost in another world, eyes glazed over, often found talking out loud to herself) armed with a street map, a water bottle and an Elizabeth Bishop poem tucked in a zippered compartment of her backpack. Yes, yes, that would have been me. I (not Skye) treked along the shaded streets of Georgetown, got lost in a labryinth (a detour in a cemetery) until I made my way to the street and house she stayed in when living in D.C. HER house. Pilgrimage to literary heroes might seem cliche, but there's something powerful about encountering a place a beloved writer calls home. That day, I stood across the street and read a poem outloud despite the curious stares of a few passers by.
I'd been to Great Village before -- asked to do readings in the same elementary school Bishop attended. I read poetry-nonsense and narrative and lyrical. We talked a bit about Elizabeth.
That day was special.
The school is more than a little magical. A real ringing bell. Eager readers.
But this weekend was...enchanted. Poetry was everywhere. Poetry flapped in the wind in the brilliant blue banners created by artist Joy Laking, and poetry clipped-clopped in the hooves of horses -- Max and Woody -- as they pulled us around on a guided tour. I heard poetry in the prose readings of young writer Elizabeth Schoffield and others, winners of the writing competition organized by Laura Gunn. I was honored to MC that event on Friday, an event that closed with John Barnstead reading a Bishop poem so perfectly I felt she was there, in St. James Church, the same church she wrote about and attended with her grandparents. Poetry was on every page of Mary Rose Donnelly's brilliant book Great Village and the powerful dramatic reading by Lenore Zann, in her dual role as actress and MLA in Truro/Bible Hill . "Running to Paradise" was written by the incomparable Donna Smythe. Poet, author, scholar, and mentor to many, myself included, Smythe 's tribute to Bishop is honest, beautiful and electrifying. That was Day One.
On Saturday morning the roster of writers giving workshops and readings included award-winning novelists and poets: Michael Crummey, Anne Simpson, Joan Clark, Don McKay and myself. We read and answered questions. (Listen to Don and Anne in the links below.) There were boat races and a community supper. On Saturday night, the church was jam-packed as we sat transfixed, caught in the spiral of music performed by Rankin, Church, Crowe. Susan Crowe, Cindy Church, Raylene Rankin. (Stop reading. Breathe.) Go here to hear.
Sunday morning there was an "old time church service," followed by a blueberry tea. The hymns we shared in church prompted memories that brought tears to more than just my eyes. And oh---the poetry in hymns! Home. Hymns. There's only a vowel sound of difference. Home. Poem. There's only a consonant. Rev. Dan Gunn gave us a open hearted and wise meditation on the word home and read from Sandra Barry's new book. Elizabeth Bishop : Nova Scotia's Home-made Poet. Home-made poet. (A good book to own.)
Sandra Barry, whose life's work has been to know and study and remember the poetry and life of Bishop, all the other members of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia and all the volunteers who made this weekend possible are giving, generous, poet-loving folks. They are committed to the cultural heritage of our region. My personal thanks go to Heather who transported us writers to and fro and Shelly and Dave for hosting me personally. (Love to Spud.) I came away FULL -- cherished talks and walks with other writers and Bishop lovers, new friends, and an overwhelming urge to continue on discovering how Bishop speaks to me. I think Skye deserves a book of her own maybe. A verse novel. Yes. Maybe.
Great Village shaped Bishop's earliest memories and her imaginative landscape and gave her a sense of home, but for a few days last weekend, I saw how it took a village to raise a dead poet from the grave and give her life again. Bishop's words do that, too. Bring us home to ourselves.
Question: What writer's home would you want to visit? I welcome comments on this posting.
Know thyself, do your homework (as in studying the tradition in which you write) and seek authentic voice. Ask what that means.
Forget about making piles of money with writing. It most likely won’t happen.
Forget about fame. Oprah won’t call. Visibility equals vulnerability anyhow.
Forget about awards or accolades - just one or two more lines extra in your obituary..
Have friends besides writers.
Repeat: My life is my most important work in progress.
Serve the work not yourself, but know what you think 'the Work' means.
Tend your spirit first but try to nurture a generous spirit not a competitive one. 'Right Intention' matters.
Keep asking what means excellence. Know you could be wrong.
Limit facebook and twitter time! Energy and breath - we only have so much.
With regards to number 13, do as I say not as I do.
Be grateful. If you are lucky enough to be writing and persist and find readers - wow. Be grateful. What a gift. But...really try not to get your knickers in a knot about selling and publishing what you create. Easy for me to say after many years, I know, but process of creation matters. I have way more pieces rejected and in un-finished file folders than I do published works. Explore. Risk. Create. Go for walks.
Poet John Ciardi describes writing for children as 'serious joy'. I read those words thumping my desk and saying yes, yes, yes, that's just it! In a perfect two-word combo he articulated how I felt. I still can't-or maybe won't- call writing my 'career'. It's my chosen profession and my passion. It's my (life's) work and play. I take it seriously. It might even be the basis of my-theological understanding: to begin again as a child.
Whenever I'm asked to offer advice or give tips about writing children's literature, (Whether plays, poetry, fiction or educational) I start with a qualifier. Even after twenty-five years, every time I sit down to write "for children" I learn something more about the art and the craft of writing period. I'll never know all there is to know about writing any more than I will ever know all there is to know about what it means to be human. It's an ongoing process of discovery: exhilarating at times, excruciating at others.
That's not very useful however, when I get letters or phone calls or facilitate writing workshops for folks who are aspiring children's writers. What follows are some scratch the surface fundamentals. Experience tells me it's necessary to revisit these maxims frequently in an ongoing striving for excellence in the field of literature I love most. I'd encourage everyone to develop his or her own.
1. Simple does not equal easy.
Standards of literary excellence don't droop and sag because children are the audience. They deserve nothing less than the best we can create. Writing for children is an art and a craft. (The mystical, the magical and the technical.) How do you determine excellence? That's extremely subjective but, in a word: READ! A study of what's been considered "the best" over the ages is a good place to begin. But trust your own preferences and wisdom. Try to pinpoint for yourself what you think excellence is and be prepared for that to evolve and change.
2. Think deeply (seriously and joyfully) about the nature of childhood.
As the never ending apprenticeship in craft and technique continues, there are philosophical questions to consider. Let's call it developing a "kinder centric vision." That's probably not a word that would make the OED but I'm referring to a child-centered frame of reference. Could you reach a light switch when you were five? Remember the child you once were. Not just stature wise of course. But not candy apple nostalgia, either. No looking over children's heads from your adult point of view and writing from that skewered place. Use the rich emotional experience of whatever ages you can connect with, add imagination and observe today's children in their worlds. Times change! There never has been, is, or will be, (I fervently hope) some universal child through which all children see or speak or feel or understand. The number of candles on the birthday cake is not a sure fire indicator into the exasperatingly unique characteristics of any one child. So how do you find an authentic child voice for your story or poem? (You don't talk baby talk or dumb down vocabulary, for starters. Maybe start with the meaning of the word authentic.)
3. Context matters.
Yes, so do form and content. A rural child is not an urban child. Cultural influences shape perspective; family situations differ and offer complexity. Historical fiction and non-fiction demand research and accurate detail. The genre in which you are writing will impose and/ or suggest certain boundaries or is it opportunities? As for setting? I hardly feel an expert on this. It's only the last five years my roots are beginning to show. Before that I always said I wrote in the country that is childhood, from the landscape of the imagination on the planet of WHAT IF.
But along with and after all that thinking?
Fugudabout "the rules!" And WRITE.
Tell the story you're burning to tell, write the book you need to write, or if poetry—listen to the music inside your body itching to get out that refuses to go away. C.S.Lewis said that he wrote for children because it was very simply the best art form to say what he had to say. Indeed!
Of all the sets of technical tools in the workbox a children's writer has, keep these ones near and dear.
Wander and wonder on sensory alert.
See, hear, sniff, taste and touch the world as if you've never seen it before. Become a puppy that frolics in the first snow or a child who learns the smell of roast beef and gravy spells Sunday. That's my way of explaining the old adage show don't tell. But caution here: "balance" is key. I confess to skipping pages myself when overwhelmed with just description no matter how masterfully done. Action ,dialogue, dramatic tension, resolution. Hey, if I want it all, so do the children! It's not just my opinion that the concrete word picture or image lingers longer for most readers than abstract language. Go further: criss-cross the senses and develop a synaesthetic perception. Need a dictionary? Great! Your other essential?
Words, Words, Words. Not puerile or bombastic, pretentious, precious, or unnecessarily mellifluous just because like me you can become obsessed with word music or sometimes think you need to show off vocabulary skills to prove your worth as a writer? The right word. The only word. The cadence of words. Become a logophile. Fall in love with every letter of the alphabet and see how they slide and swoosh together in words. It's not just what you do with words or what they do for you it's what words do for your readers.
Writing is sharing. A little part of you might end up in someone's home, a teacher's classroom or a librarian's story hour.