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.