Saturday, 3 August 2013

Dumbing Down - Heather Dyer

Sometimes I wonder whether I am taking the easy option in writing for children. Not that I find writing for children easy – far from it – but would writing for adults be even more difficult? And more worthwhile?
I don’t have these thoughts often, but they flit across my mind sometimes when people (often other writers, who ought to know better!) actually say things like: “You’re wasted on writing for children.” Or, “Why do you want to dumb down?”
But I don't see writing for children as dumbing down. I see it as making complex ideas accessible – and that isn’t easy. As Einstein said, ‘If you can’t explain it to an eight year old you don’t understand it fully yourself.’
But it's true that I don’t think I could write fiction for adults – not at the moment, anyway. It just doesn’t grab me. I wasn’t sure why this was until I read the following account from Gretchen Rubin in her book The Happiness Project:
“I’ve never really figured out what I get from children’s literature that I don’t get from adult literature, but there’s something. The difference between novels for adults and novels for children isn’t merely a matter of cover design, bookstore placement, and the age of the protagonist. It’s a certain quality of atmosphere.”
Yes! Whether fantasy or reality-based, children’s books (especially for the younger ages) are nice places to be. That’s one of the reasons I write for children. I like to give them somewhere to go. Gretchen goes on to say:

“Children’s literature often deals openly with the most transcendent themes, such as the battle between good and evil and the supreme power of love… good triumphs. [Adult novels] focus on guilt, hypocrisy, the perversion of good intentions, the cruel workings of fate, social criticism, the slipperiness of language, the inevitability of death, sexual passion, unjust accusation, and the like.”

Actually, I’d argue that children – and their books – do contain all of these other murky issues, but because children might not be sophisticated or experienced enough to appreciate these machinations in an adult world, they have to be explored through a child’s world – or a fantasy world. But I think that children’s books do tend to strive towards ideals, promote the sunny side of the street, and prove that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Children’s books are optimistic. As Gretchen says:
“…maybe children are closer to their natural perfection than adults, less mired, can still feel like flying, want to be free, to be good, to be their best selves…”
And that’s pretty wonderful, isn’t it? When it is suggested to me that I stop writing fantasy and start writing about the ‘real world’, I re-read the following excerpt from an article in the Guardian, in which Jeanette Winterson (who has had more than her fair share of the ‘real world’ but has not lost her ability to fly) talks about the benefits of writing for children:
“… kids can hold on to a life lived on many levels, that does not altogether follow the calendar and the clock, or the straight line of events. Life has an inside as well as an outside, and the purpose of imaginative books and films for kids isn't simple escapism but permission to keep the Peter Pan part that never should grow up. This isn't foolishness, but openness, trust, good-nature, and a willingness to live bravely – as all the fairytales tell us we must.”
Because when you think about it, the world is magic after all. It’s only because we are accustomed to looking at it with jaded adult eyes that we see it as anything but miraculous. Children’s books can give us back a dimension of amazement, remind us how it feels to be enchanted, take us flying and show us the light. This doesn't feel like dumbing down, to me - more like a lifting up.

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Sue Bursztynski said...

I write - and read - children's books because, along with genre fiction, they're one of the last bastions of story, as opposed to "beautiful writing" that has no story, the kind of garbage that wins adult literary awards but the author can't actually tell you what it's about or why you should care about the characters. It's just "beautiful writing". And it doesn't have to be fantasy to be a wonderful children's book. Children's and YA fiction is the only kind in which I will read mainstream - adult mainstream fiction I find dull.

I've done several non fiction books for kids, myself, and I used children's books for most of my research. As you say, if you can't explain it to an eight-year old...

Carole Anne Carr said...

Write what you enjoy, what has meaning for you,and your pleasure will be conveyed to your readers. And all writing has its unique problems. I write children's books set in 800 a.d., and some in the 1800's and often think I could make life easier for myself :0)

jongleuse said...

You have absolutely got to the heart of it. Children's fiction gives us the reassurance that monsters can be overcome. Not just children's fiction either, much crime fiction has the same premise.
Love the Gretchen Rubin quote and will seek out that book. The other thing I love about writing for children and young adults is the freedom: to cross genre boundaries, challenge received 'adult' wisdom and play with imagined worlds.

Susan Price said...

I think it was Jan Mark who said something like, 'Adult Fiction is about the big things, like love affairs, sex, money, divorce - while children's fiction concerns itself with the trivial stuff, like Good and Evil, Life and Death.
Children's fiction may not be as explicit as adult fiction can be, but it seems to offer a far wider spectrum.

Joan Lennon said...

Those are excellent quotes, including the one from Jan Marks. I get myself knotted up about this on a regular basis, and will refer myself back to your blog the next time it happens! Thank you!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Ooh, love that Jan Mark comment! Perfect way to describe it. :)

Sue Purkiss said...

Thoughtful and very interesting post, Heather - thank you!

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks all - very interesting points. I like to think that an appreciation for children's literature will only grow, especially when there is so much good work out there...

Penny said...

I totally agree with the post and all the comments.

There are so many high quality children's and YA books out there, so why bother with second or third rate adult fiction?

And as G K Chesterton famously said: "Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I've just sat down with Levi Pinfold's "Django" before reading this post. I don't think any adult novel could portray what Pinfold has put down in so few words, so succinctly. The same goes for his "Black Dog" which won the Greenaway this year.

Brilliant post. Thank you Heather for reminding us.