Monday, 23 November 2009

Writing for children - is it difficult? - Katherine Langrish

I’ve been reading an essay by Peter Hunt, a well-known academic and former Professor of English at Cardiff University, author of a number of critical studies of children’s literature. The essay is in a new on-line periodical, Write4Children and begins provocatively:

“Writing for children is more difficult than writing for adults, just as reading children’s books (for adults) is much more difficult than reading adults’ books.”

I read this and blinked. While it’s nice to come across a corrective to the all-too-common view that writing for children is so simple that any celebrity can take a crack at it, this did seem to be rushing to the opposite extreme. Maybe he’s trying to redress the balance? Hunt continues:

“Somewhere in the equation is a child, or the idea of a child, or a group of children, or some amorphous mass defined as children, or a specific childhood, or the culture’s idea of childhood, or the publisher’s idea of childhood. Then there is our relationship with these various childhoods and our motives and our needs and their needs…

“All of these things have to be reflected in what we choose to write, and how we write it. It’s a complex business…”

Blimey! It’s enough to make you wonder how any of us ever manages to write a children’s book at all. The essay is a long and interesting one and deserves to be read in full, but I would like if I may to offer some personal reactions to Professor Hunt's opening salvos.

First off, I don’t find writing for children ‘more difficult’ than writing for adults. I’ve written very little for adults, perhaps a short story or two; and if I found writing for adults easier, I imagine I’d write for adults. And anyway, what does ‘easier’ mean? Hunt appears to suggest that the ‘difficulty’ he sees as inherent in writing for children has something to do with bridging the experiential gap between the child reader and the adult writer – so does he assume that writing for adults is in some way less effortful, involving less mediation and more shared assumptions? I’m not sure that’s a valid assumption. Adult readers are pretty diverse.

Second, I don’t find reading children’s books ‘more difficult’ than reading adults’ books. I love narrative and colour and a certain directness and unfussiness and clarity, and I love these things in literature wherever I find them, and children’s literature happens to be especially rich in these areas. But children’s literature can also be subtle and poetic and complex. I don’t analyse things as I read them – though I may analyse them later. When I read a book for the first time I read it, so far as I can tell, in pretty much the same way as when I was a child – with an open mind and an open heart and a desire to find out what happens…

Hunt’s essay makes it sound as though, before you write a book for children, you sit down and have a good think about who and what they are, how to reach them, what to include and exclude, and carefully examine one’s own motives for writing: ‘the good children’s book comes about from a respectful mutual negotiation of the ground between adult and child, taking into account needs and understandings’. I don’t see how this supposed process can be ‘mutual’ – children are not generally consulted in the writing of children’s books – and you would imagine on hearing this, that writing for children is as complicated as passing a resolution through the United Nations.

I never – consciously anyway – give any thought before writing, or while writing, to who my readers are. I don’t believe in any imperative to do so. It would get horribly in the way, and would feel irrelevant. While I’m writing, I’m focussed like every other writer on telling a particular story as well as I can. I have plenty of technical stuff to consider – how to make the writing sharp and focussed, deciding in what order things should happen, what episodes to include and which to cut – but I can honestly say that I’ve never, ever felt the fact that my readers will be (mainly) children as an added layer of difficulty. I’ve never modified my vocabulary, never worried about my ‘tone of voice’, never felt the need to censor anything. I write ‘for’ children merely because the stories I naturally write happen to appeal to them – as well as to some teens and adults.

It’s a good thing to recognise children’s literature as worthy of academic attention; it’s important to scrutinise what is being written for children and to distinguish the good from the mediocre, and to celebrate the best. Criticism has its place, the academic approach its interest, but Hunt’s account of the process of writing for children is so constructed, so dry and cerebral, so foreign to my own experience, that I have to wonder who are the people who would find it useful?

If I tried to do it his way, I’d end up like the centipede:

A centipede was happy quite,
Until a frog, in fun
Said ‘Pray, which leg moves after which?’
This raised her mind to such a pitch
She lay distracted in a ditch,
Not knowing how to run.


catdownunder said...

Is the 'difficult' bit that some adults have forgotten what it was like to be children? If so, then they should not be writing for children (perhaps not writing at all). I will go and see if I can get my paws on the article and read it for myself.

MaureenHume said...

Everyone is good and bad at different things and that's exactly as it should be. It's the differences within people that make them interesting to other people.
I love writing for children and I have absoutely no idea why that is, it's just something that flows for me.

Katherine Langrish said...

The article can be found online at - for some reason I could NOT get the link to post!

Ashley Howland said...

I don't really view writing for either children or adults difficult for an author. That is afterall why we write. However I do actually agree with the just read to read, not over analyse what motivated the author. I used to have this argument with my fellow teachers. My answer to what motivated the author was always the same - writing motivated the author so enjoy it!

John Dougherty said...

No, no, Kath: writing for children is much, much harder than writing for adults, and you have to be much, much cleverer to do it. Why, I regularly get letters from Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis begging me to enlighten them...

Nick Green said...

The article writer would appear to be suffering from that sadly common affliction - the belief that children are some other species, instead of merely how we used to be.

You're right, Kath, it needs no interpreter, no magical telepathy, no in-depth research into 'how children are' and 'what they want' and 'how they react'. We know this. We all know it. We've been there, and I don't think anyone can have truly forgotten, deep down. Besides, children are as diverse between them as adults are; more variation within the groups than between.

John Dougherty said...

But seriously... couldn't you equally say, "somewhere in the equation is a reader, or the idea of a reader, or a group of readers, or some amorphous mass defined as readers, or the culture's idea of reading, or the publisher's idea of reading. Then there is our relationship with these various readerships and our motives and our need and their needs..."

adele said...

Hear, hear, Kath! I too never have a reader in mind when I write. Tell the story in the best way you can and with luck it will find an audience. One of the reasons that age banding was so ridiculous was that you can't define who will be reading your book. You hope it will find readers of whatever age who will enjoy it. Publishers decide roughly who they THINK will like it and they publish it with covers they deem suitable but as we know, good stories spread out and get read by all ages and all kinds of people in many countries.

Katherine Roberts said...

I think writing for children gets more difficult when you begin to question why your books are not not selling as well as Harry Potter... it's tempting to try to analyse the way you write and change your work to fit the market, until you end up just like that poor centipede!

Gillian Philip said...

"I’ve never modified my vocabulary, never worried about my ‘tone of voice’, never felt the need to censor anything. I write ‘for’ children merely because the stories I naturally write happen to appeal to them – as well as to some teens and adults."

Exactly - well said, and same here. This is such an interesting post. I think he overdoes his case by a mile but it IS nice to see someone treating children's writing with as much respect as writing for adults.

I don't question why my books aren't selling as well as Harry Potter, but family and friends do... bleh! I bet we all get it... 'going to be the next JK Rowling, eh, ha ha....'

Rosalind Adam said...

I too love writing for children. As Nick commented, we were all children once and I do believe that there's something almost magical about using memory to stimulate ideas for creative writing.

I love the centipede's dilemma. Hilarious, but I'll try not to think about it while I'm driving. It could be lethal!

steeleweed said...

Any writing has a target audience. Children 3-5? 10? 15? Harry Potter has a different audience than did A.A.Milne. I intensely dislike a lot of the books I see because they are condescending. While subject matter and depth of treatment may be different from an adult novel, we don't need to 'talk down' to a 4-year-old. A good child's book won't bore an adult.

I think the prime requirement is enjoying the company of children - and respecting them.

For the record, I'm 72 and still enjoy Now We Are Six and When We Were Very Young and just finished Winnie the Poo (in Russian - next month I'll tackle it in Latin).

Katherine Langrish said...

Thank you all for your interesting comments. I had to post this last night instead of this morning as I was out all day today, so it's fun to come back and see what people have had to say.

I think writing well is difficult, full stop. I certainly have to work hard at it, anyway. I simply don't think writing for children is easier or more difficult, per se, than writing for adults.

I hope you'll go and read the original - it's interesting, though much of what he says is applicable to writing in general, plusthere are a few other points which made me suck my breath in thoughtfully. Oh, and there's a great article on poetry by Michael Rosen...

Leslie Wilson said...

I think the trouble is, he's an academic, and thinks like an academic. Plus, his long list of variables gives him something to say that sounds important and intellectual, he's using a particular way of chopping up language and concepts and putting them together on the plate that academics love to do. He has to clock up a certain amount of publications every year, after all, hasn't he?
Sorry to be cynical.
As for me, I write from and for my inner adolescent, innit?

Anonymous said...

you've hit the nail on the head, katherine. it's writing anything WELL, that's hard. innit?

Charlie Butler said...

I have an academic hat as well as a writerly one, as know - so this is an interesting debate for me.

With that double perspective in mind, I've sometimes written about the need for the practice of writing and the experience of writers to be more thoroughly integrated into the talk of the academy. (If you're curious, see: ‘Holiday Work: On Writing for Children and for the Academy.’ Children’s Literature in Education. 38.3 (Sept. 2007), 163-72.) Finding a way to marry the voices of the academic and the artist is a real problem, and one that hasn't been successfully addressed yet.

In partial defence of what Hunt is saying, though, it reminds me more of an anatomist giving a description of what happens when you take a pace forward: the enormous complexity of the network of nerve signals, muscles, tendons, balance, timing and geometry involved in that operation. Of course, we can then say - "But walking is easy! Even my four year old can do it!" But that doesn't invalidate the doctor's description or make it less relevant to his/her medical purposes. In writing, as in walking, I think that this kind of complexity exists, but that much of it is internalized, sub- or semi-conscious, or converted from thought into technique.

Whether it is harder to write for children than adults, I couldn't say. Few people seem to be able to do both well. I don't, at any rate, think that it's obviously less hard!

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks Charlie - I was wondering if you would see this, and I knew you would have some interesting points. The anatomical comparison is useful, I think. But if you think about it, anatomies are written by doctors for other doctors and medical students who may need to operate or dissect. In the meantime, human beings just get on with living. And in this case, a critical dissection of the complexities inherent in a writer's work may well be useful to other critics, but I cannot for the life of me see how it's going to be helpful to budding writers - even though Hunt appears to be addressing them in his article. In fact, I think his approach might actually do young writers harm and not good. Imagine believing you need to go through all those contortions of thought before beginning to write! To me it suggests a distressing misapprehension of how real storytelling or story writing actually happens.

Katherine Langrish said...

A post-script - of course I believe there are plenty of things that can and should be taught and learned about the craft of writing. But that's not what Hunt is doing, at least not in the pragraphs I chose to discuss here.

Charlie Butler said...

Yes, now I've gone back and read the article as a whole I see that it is indeed addressed to would-be writers, and in that context I agree with you that - well, this is probably not the best way to approach the subject!

In a way, though, this is the challenge that the journal as a whole faces. It seems to be trying to bring together the academic and the critical in a way that I can only applaud, but I suspect that it's going to take quite a lot of trial and error before it finds a way of doing so successfully, and in the meantime there may be quite a lot of talking at cross-purposes. If I may, I'll quote the conclusion of the article I referenced earlier (and I apologize in advance for the academic idiom):

"[we need to] develop a mode of academic writing that can integrate the kind of experiential knowledge writers have to offer, and allow that knowledge to appear without its customary shabby garb of the anecdotal and the ad hoc. For too long, experiential knowledge has stood disregarded at the gates of the academy, and the act of writing has been a strangely neglected and under-theorized element of English studies. To find a way to welcome it in is a challenge worth the efforts of the most creatively critical of us – and the most critically creative too."

With this noble aim in mind, I'll be very interested to see where this journal goes from here.

Leila said...

"who are the people who would find it useful? "

People studying for an MA in Children's Literature, as I have done.
He's an academic, he is interested in children's books in a different way than a children's writer is. His comments are true, but not useful for writers. Horses for courses. Booksellers (I've been one of them too) think of children's books in yet a third way. I don't have a problem with switching viewpoints, or finding all of them equally valid and valuable, not mutually exclusive.