Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why we write for kids

If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “Why don’t you write for adults?” I’d have—well, probably just a latte from Starbucks, but still. It’s one of those comments, along with, “I would write a kid’s book, if I had the time,” that makes me a little nuts. (My friend Pamela Jane had the best answer for the second one when a real estate mogul said that to her at a party. She looked at him and responded, “I’d put together a multi-million dollar real estate deal if I had the time.")

So why do we write for kids and not adults? It might be easier for the outside world to understand why people write fiction for kids, but non-fiction? Why do we go through all the research, learn about our topic front and back, inside and out, and then write it as a picture book for preschool through second-graders, or as a middle grade book, or as a YA? We’d make more money, almost certainly, if we wrote it for adults. Get bigger advances, sell more copies. In some circles, we’d have more cache. (Though most of us learn, early on, those are not the circles we want to run in.) It’s just as much work—if not more—to write it for kids. As has been famously said (first, it seems, by Henry David Thoreau), it’s harder to write it short. (Also true for blogs, as I'm finding out.) And harder to write it simpler. So why do we do it? First, it's a great challenge. And that's huge. I am never, ever bored in my job!

But also, here's the truth: books matter more to kids. O.K. before I go on, I have to say, some of my best friends are grown-ups. Some of my best friends (and best husbands) even write for grown-ups. There’s nothing wrong with writing for grown-ups.

But a book can change a kid’s life.
A book can hit a kid in the solar plexus and never let go.

I remember the day I first discovered I could learn from books. And that changed my life.

For some reason in my school, Muhlenberg Elementary, in Allentown, PA, we weren’t allowed to check out books from the library until first grade. Maybe that was a good idea--we had to wait a whole year, and the anticipation was intoxicating. Then one day, we walked into the library—I can still see the beautiful wooden shelves, smell that old-book, old-paper, new-book, new-paper library smell. (I was back there for a school visit a few years ago and the library smells the same!) For some reason, maybe it was because it was straight ahead, I walked over to the non-fiction section and I pulled this book off the shelf.

I walked home, book in hand, and asked my mother to read it to me. Up until that point, the books my mother read to me were all fiction: The Little House, a book about twins who didn't want to look the same any more (oh, how I wanted a twin sister!), and my favorite, the eponymous, Debbie and Her Nap, which my mother bought and read to me for pure propaganda purposes, which did not work. Though though I am a heckuva good napper now.

But on that day when I was six, as my mother read What is a Butterfly to me on my bed (I honestly remember this moment--my back was up against the wall, my legs too short to reach the other side of the bed), I discovered that a book could teach me things, a book could help me understand how the world works, a book could make me smart. It was my own personal (excuse me) metamorphosis. I returned What is a Butterfly and came back home with What is a Frog? then What is a Tree? and there was a whole series! I was hooked--on non-fiction. I didn't stop reading fiction, I kept it in the mix, but I gobbled up non-fiction. And as soon as I was old enough, I turned to biographies--and they became my new love. I found that for me the best way into a subject was through people, through a person's story, a person's life. This also came from my mother, an inveterate people watcher. Hence my love for writing biography now. But it all started with What is a Butterfly.

And years later, in a pure coincidence, an editor asked me to do a book about metamorphosis. I wrote From Caterpillar to Butterfly, and as I wrote it, in the months just after my mother died, it was as if she was right beside me again, reading me my first non-fiction book, the one that opened up the world for me.

Preparing for this blog I asked friends and family to tell me some stories about how a book changed their life, or a kid's life. Here are some of their answers. I hope readers of I.N.K. and other I.N.K. bloggers will also contribute.

Elvira Woodruff, author of many wonderful children's books based on historical events, started reading the Landmark Edition Biographies when she was ten or eleven and "Reading about how these people transformed their lives gave me encouragement and hope that I could change my own life. Those biographies were inspiring in a way that today's reality tv could never be. Rather than just a snapshot of a moment these biographies gave you an entire life to reflect on and I do believe my outlook on life was changed for the better because of them."

Another friend, a librarian and an author, brought home Jean Fritz's books for her daughter who hated history and social studies. Corrie was hooked, and she is now an enthusiastic middle school social studies teacher!

We as authors, and as people who put books into kids’ hands, can be real instruments of change. A book can help to change the world, one child or one class at a time. Marfe Ferguson Delano's new book, Earth in the Hot Seat will change kids' lives and will help change the world, I have no doubt. It grew out of kids and adults doing things to help save the world, and the book is generating more action. She tells me that when she talks about the book with kids, it gets the ball rolling, and then the kids pick it up and run with it, thinking of new ways to help the planet. Of course there have been surprises. One boy said that electronic books are really much greener than the paper-and-ink variety, and asked what she thought about trees being cut down to make paper for her books. It got Marfe thinking, and I'm sure that boy, or one like him, will effect change (whether we old fogies like it or not.)

Here's a, perhaps, cautionary tale: One day my older son, who was an avid reader, picked up a used book by John Holt called How Schools Fail. It was written for adults, obviously, but it spoke to him in a very big way. He was in fourth grade. Therein ensued years of discussions, arguments, and campaigns, which ended in Aaron finally convincing us to let him homeschool for high school. I have the gray hairs to prove it. (Though I know now it was the right thing for him.) And, thankfully, another book, Computers and the Human Mind, also grabbed him around the same time, and set him off on a course that ended up in a job in software engineering right after college. He's still an avid reader, though, mostly, I will say, on the screen, and would definitely advocate for books on screens, like that other boy. (But that's another blog.)

Books matter to kids. Books can change a kid's life. So that's why I write for kids. That and, frankly, that it's fun.

Please share your stories--how did a non-fiction book change your life, or the life of a child you know?


Karen Romano Young said...

Wonderful post, Deb! For me it was the biographies of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Eleanor Roosevelt. There weren't any MLK bios yet because we were living it, but these books shed so much light on what was going on and gave me a sense of the scope of the civil rights struggle in America that stays with me today. They inspired me to think differently from my parents and grandparents, to work, and to write about civil rights.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Excellent....I laughed out loud about the multimillion dollar real estate deal. But did a non-fiction book ever change my life when I was a kid? No way! It's been so many moons since I was young enough to be swayed that there wasn't an appealing non-fiction book in sight (though I did love a non-fiction school magazine that I think was called Scholastic).

So all those ancient non-fiction books that put everyone right to sleep were incentive enough for me to write true tales that I hope will knock kids' socks off. (It's also great fun to draw the pictures and to feel like you just got a Ph.D by researching something incredible in great depth.) It would be wonderful to think we've changed a life or three, but just writing something memorable or fascinating enough to make a few eyes pop would suit me fine.

Notes from a Virtual Easel said...

What a great article! You make some excellent points.

The book that changed my life was "For a Child". I can still see the cover. It was orange, and, by the time I was finished with it, the poor thing was falling apart (like the Velveteen Rabbit, too much loved). It was a book of poetry. Most of the poems had been written for adults at one time in the past, but they were filled with a kind of music, astute observation, and honesty best appreciated by a four or five-year-old. I remember many happy days running errands for my mom in later preteen years, working and reworking poems in my head.
Now, I write verse with a purpose in a series of books for Linworth. (My latest is "Bit, Bat, Bee, Follow Me!) I also helped to write a volume in Evan-Moor's popular "Read and Understand Poetry" series.
It all started with "For a Child."

Barbara Kerley said...

Great post, Deb!

I have to admit that the book that changed my life was Harriet the Spy. Tho one could argue that SHE was a nonfiction writer, so...

Lynn said...

I can't think of a non fiction book that changed my life, but I did want to post and say that I thought this post was beautiful. I could smell my elementary school library reading it. I think I was drawn to fiction there more than nonfiction. And Highlights magazines. At home, we had a set of encyclopedias that I loved to pour through. I'm sure we had more nonfiction, but I tend not to remember the books I read when I was young...just the overall excitement of loving to read.