Friday, February 11, 2011

Why I/We/You Continue to Write for Kids

As a big birthday fast approaches, the gulf between young peoples’ experiences and mine has widened considerably. And yet I continue to write for kids. I went from teaching high school English to photojournalism to writing and photographing children’s books. Through the years my students’ dialogue about the great themes in literature, poetry, art – ergo life – lived inside my heart and echoed in my ears. My young cousins were often about, arguing over who would recite their latest poem first, practically jumping over one another to talk about some crazy adventure. Those reverberations were a vital part of my work. The students are long grown up, and my cousins are adults with adult dispositions. Have the voices of our current generation changed? Are their issues different from mine? I think they probably are. But I’m not sure.

I dodge the “voice” problem somewhat by writing from the perspective of the person I’m interviewing. It’s not in my voice but the young person’s voice. But my books are not 100% participants’ voices. Some parts, like choosing the subject, is me, and that’s what I question. So the choice of narrative and presentation begs the questions to us all, “Are we still asking interesting, relevant questions? Are we still cool?”

A perk writing for children is that we are generous with one another. I asked a few experienced writers and illustrators to contribute their thoughts to this subject. I made it a point not to ask INK contributors because I hope you will add your thoughts in the comment section.

The first person to respond was Andrea Davis Pinkney. She said, “We all know the clichĂ© that says, ‘real life is stranger than fiction.’ Well – when writing for children ‘real’ can also be funny, ironic, sad, thought provoking, and cool. This is why I write non-fiction and historical fiction for children. ‘Real’ can let a child see the world in a whole new way.Real’ can change a young reader’s thinking about people, history, scientific facts, love, laws, wars, protests, rites of passage, family. ‘Real’ can show kids what’s real about themselves.”


Ellen Levine added her sharp activist’s eye, saying, “because even with all the world's madness, their eyes and hearts are still open. They understand the seriousness of injustice and also enjoy silliness with resounding laughter. Yes there are bullies and yes, dystopian fantasies are riding high now, but I'm banking on that combo of serious and silly.“

Oh yes!

When Elizabeth Levy, and Bruce Coville were about to take off for a school visit in Egypt, I asked Liz to email me her thoughts, assuming she’d have plenty of time during long plane rides. “Oh, and ask Bruce, too.” But they got caught up in a revolution, not exactly a great time to ask a favor. I’m just happy they are home, safe and sound, to continue writing for kids. [Liz recently wrote about their experiences and posted it on her Website. Bruce has been posting on Facebook.]

Then I called Vera B. Williams, who said, “I’ve been thinking about that lately, too. Let’s talk about it over lunch.” A few days later at Co Ba, a Vietnamese restaurant, half way between her apartment and mine, we ate our way through the topic. Vera ordered Pho Bo and I had Banh Mi Bo. We topped it off with yummy homemade banana coconut muffins and Vietnamese coffee. What began as “just email me a few lines,” became part of a two-and-a-half hour conversation.

Vera got right to the point, “Well, why do you write for kids? I want to hear your thoughts first.”

Hmmm, I was hoping to get everyone else to talk about this so I wouldn’t have to. I write nonfiction for kids because they want to know truths. As a child, I must have paid attention to my family’s outrage when they discussed fundamental inequalities, especially during the civil rights movement. Their comments didn’t jive with watered-down textbook lessons I read in school. I wanted to know what was real, not the propaganda poppycock being fed to us in class. There had to be a better way to provide real information, even conflicting information.

Vera says, “My books come from a close connection from my own childhood. Even as a child I felt I was an advocate for children, that children weren’t treated rightly. My ambition was to be seen as a ‘knowing child,’ and to represent those children who were articulate and those who needed a voice. What’s in my books continues to interest me – working class families who were not portrayed when I started to do books. Writing for children is complicated. You’re not only writing for the children but the people who read to them. I feel it’s a duty to explain aspects of the world.”

Writing “aspects of the world” is something we all seem to have in common as children’s authors.

Vera continues, “I drew and painted and I wrote poems all my life. But I had more education as an artist. The question that comes to me is, have I used up my inspiration? Have I used up my own childhood’s voice? Cause that’s what’s in my books. And the answer is, ‘I’m not sure.’ What does Paul say?”

Paul Zelinsky had emailed me the following thoughts and I read them to Vera: What I like to do best is to work with pictures and words to tell a story. And there is no better place to do that than in a children's book. I think everyone responds to stories in pretty much the same way, but you'll never take in a story with as much intensity or as great a belief as when you're young. I remember, in my childhood of reading, how wonderful the worlds felt that spread out before me; and the thought that my own work might have that same effect on other people, early in their lives, is an amazing one.”

Vera again, “What Paul said hits home. I can express three longtime things that I love: stories, the graphic designs in the shapes of letters, and pictures. To be seen and heard as you really are? I’m less certain that I have the voices of children right.”

When I talk with Vera I can hear the voice of a child, albeit an extremely profound and precocious child. As for me … oh hell, I write for kids! Birthdays be damned!


Jeannine Atkins said...

What a great, thought-provoking post. Thank you. And happy birthday!

Anonymous said...

Have a great birthday, Susan! You've already given us a present. The quotes were wonderful, and the post eloquently sums up why I continue to write for kids, too. Thank you!

B. G. Hennessy said...

Paul's comments really hit home for me. Children are such great believers! Remembering that depth of belief is key for me when I write. (I don't recall being too upset when I found out about Santa Claus. However, I still remember how shattered I felt when I learned I wasn't an Indian. My family had moved to a town called Wantagh on Long Island, named for a local Chief. I knew that people from China were Chinese and the Irish were from Ireland, I made the jump that I now would be Indian since I was from Wantagh. Being about four, I asked my mom to take me to the library so I could get some books so I could be a better Indian. I write for the tyype of kid I was.)

Susan Kuklin said...

Thanks Jeannine, Laurie, and B.G. for your encouraging posts. It's a tough subject, actually, and takes quite a bit of introspection.

Isn't it interesting how many of us write for children because of deep-rooted childhood beliefs and experiences. I loved B.G.'s comment "I write for the type of kid I was." Could one also say, "I write for the type of kid I am."

It's a long weekend. Can anyone take this on?

Clara Gillow Clark said...

Oh, I love B.G. Hennessey's comment and agree that what Paul said hit home with me as well. Just reading the words gave me a longing for that experience again,". . .you'll never take in a story with as much intensity or as great a belief as when you're young. I remember, in my childhood of reading, how wonderful the worlds felt that spread out before me. . ." Oh, so true! Thanks for a great post!

Susan said...

Thanks, Clara, for the comment. I couldn't agree more. Let's hold tight to "how wonderful the worlds (feel)."

Roxane said...

Thanks for including my book about Ella, Deb. Re: back matter: I always prefer the story be as complete as possible, so yes, by all means, put in dates and some context. (It's hard, I know.) While I enjoy back matter and know that it pleases reviewers and especially librarians, it can be show-off-y. Kind of like acknowledgements in adult books. So don't go overboard with the stuff that comes after "the end."

LizMys said...

Why we write for kids! This was wonderful. It reinforces my feelings that writing for children and reading their writing has enhanced our lives so much.
Thanks for pulling so many of our thoughts together...
Liz Levy

LizMys said...

Thanks Susan. This so reinforced why we write for children and the great joy in reading their writing also.
Liz Levy

Susan Kuklin said...

Chris Raschka asked me to post this comment for him:

I write for children because I draw for children. And I draw for children because a picture book can really make me jump. Moving a story along simply but prettily is not really that easy to do, at least not for me, and I like difficult things, they keep my mind off of what otherwise might bog it down. Of course, simply drawing with no notion of a story, with no point, and no message might also be nice, but then it does make the day go by a bit more easily if somewhere in the back of your mind there is a point, which, I guess, in my situation, is conjuring some of the joy I feel in music, trees, birds, friendships, histories and jokes.