Why do you write for children?

by | Jun 13, 2009

I have been too busy to blog much, and won’t be doing much of it now, except that I wanted to draw your attention to a great entry posted by my friend Tony Eaton about writing for children and young adults.  I don’t often mention to people that I write books, because of the strange reaction it almost always garners.  (I’m not entirely sure why that is: is it too weird?  Do they expect me to instantly recline on a chaise longue and smoke cheroots?  Do they wonder if I’m going to dash off and write down everything they say, like Helen Garner has been reported to do?)  Once the first strange reaction has passed, the answer to the next question – what do you write? – sets people off on a second paroxysm of near-alarm.  This time, it has an air of condescension: only children’s books (and then, to add insult to injury, they think about Enid Blyton and her neglect of her own children, Lewis Carroll and his paedophilic attachment to the ‘real’ Alice, and how you will never earn enough as JK Rowling.)  God help them if they ever get around to reading some of the stuff I actually have written: some of my early books, after all, have been known to make older people’s hair curl – I still have the many indignant letters I got from old folk about Skating the Edge (as well as all of the emails of appreciation from the target audience).  Suitability is in the eye of the beholder.

The fact is that most grown-ups don’t know much about the books that their children read, once they’re past the age of being read to, and it’s hard to know whether to be grateful or sorrowful.  Despite children and young adult writing being heavily mediated by teachers, librarians, parents, publishers – the adult world – once you’ve jumped through a few hoops, you have a direct relationship with readers who care passionately about what they read.  If teenaged readers love or hate what you’ve written, they will tell you, and in detail.  Children and teenagers have a relationship with books that is lost to most adult readers, and that’s what makes writing for them so intense and wonderful.  You can’t hide behind fine phrases, or flimsy plots: you have to have a story to tell.  And for a writer, that reminder is salutory.  If you don’t have something to say, it really is better not to say anything.

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