The three golden rules of writing children's literature

As someone who writes books for children, I am privy lớn a never-ending debate in children’s-literature circles. (You may now be imagining old ladies in floral dresses sitting around Victorian parlors, knitting and discussing the relative merits of “Johnny Tremain” và “Little House on the Prairie”; I assure you, nowadays it is mostly tattoos và pink hair in these groups, though there are still some lovely floral dresses.) The debate is this: What makes a children’s book “good”?


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The ”Goosebumps” series has sold more than three hundred và fifty million copies. But does that make them good?Courtesy Scholastic
Now that summer vacation is over and students are submitting lists of books they have read since June, the question is particularly relevant. Does having read the novelization of the latest superhero movie “count” as having read a book? How about a graphic novel based on a line of toys? After my seventh-grade summer, I turned in a reading list that consisted of a single title—the illustrated book “Dinotopia,” by James Gurney. My teacher wrote “This is a sad list” on the paper. More fool her: I hadn’t even read “Dinotopia.” It just happened lớn be the only reading material other than Mad magazine in my room that summer, và I’d felt that my proximity to lớn the book constituted reading it.

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The conundrum of the “good” children’s book is best embodied by the apparently immortal—or maybe just undead—series “Goosebumps,” by R. L. Stine. “Goosebumps” is a series of horror novellas, the kid’s-lit equivalent of B-horror movies. It’s also one of the most successful franchises in the business, selling over three hundred and fifty million copies worldwide—which is a ludicrous, almost obscene, number. And here’s a secret from the depths of the publishing industry: neither sale nor publithành phố nor movie tie-ins can move three hundred & fifty million copies. The only way to lớn sell that many copies is if millions of kids actually & truly want to read the books. The conclusion is obvious: “Goosebumps” books are good, right?

Maybe, but kids have weird ideas of chất lượng. The children’s author Laura Amy Schlitz, in her 2007 Newbery Medal acceptance speech, explained: “I must remind myself that ‘good’ is an approximate term. A second-grader once asked me for ‘a really, really good book,’ và I asked hyên ổn, as librarians bởi, what he considered a good book. He eyed me with thinly veiled impatience & replied, ‘Medium-long with poisonous snakes.’ ”

Adult responses to lớn the question of good children's books tkết thúc to fall into lớn two general camps: a content-oriented approach and a results-oriented approach. The ladies in floral dresses of ages past were concerned with content. A good book for children is somehow instructive sầu or nutritive, often morally so. You might laugh that off as hopelessly old-fashioned, but there has been a broad resurgence of the idea that children’s books should be “socially conscious,” which isn’t that far from morally instructive sầu. Vast numbers of children’s books these days are somehow “timely” & “relevant,” taking on issues lượt thích discrimination or animal cruelty. Some particularly wonderful ones that might be described as “socially conscious” are Gene Luen Yang’s “Boxers & Saints,” a duo of graphic novels about religious và colonial persecution during the Boxer Rebellion; Katherine Applegate’s masterpiece “The One and Only Ivan,” which đơn hàng with the cruel treatment of a gorilla in a roadside zoo; và Cece Bell’s brilliant & funny “El Deafo,” a graphic memoir about the author growing up with a hearing impairment. But must a book be “socially conscious” lớn be good?


A different content criterion is psychological value. This is what the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheyên ổn advocated. As he explained in “The Uses of Enchantment,” he believed that a good book would “promote ability lớn find meaning in life. . . . It must stimulate his imagination; help hyên to develop his intellect & lớn clarify his emotions; be attuned khổng lồ his anxieties and aspirations; give sầu full recognition to lớn his difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to lớn the problems which perturb hlặng.” As a children’s-book author, and even as a purchaser of children’s books, I am daunted by those requirements. Bettelheyên ổn claims that few children’s books achieve these lofty goals—with the exception of fairy tales. When I read this passage, Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” always comes khổng lồ mind. That one, it seems to lớn me, satisfies Bettelheim’s stipulations. O.K., so we’ve given our children Grimm và Sendak. Now what are we supposed to do?


The results-oriented approach gives us a much broader phối of criteria for determining chất lượng. “Results” can range from book sales (“Goosebumps,” in that case, would definitely be good) to making a child laugh (any book written by Jon Scieszka would loudly ring that bell). C. S. Lewis took the results-oriented approach in his landmark essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” Anyone who believes that children’s books should be read only by children, or who slanders the art of writing for children, should read this essay & then graciously admit defeat. After castigating authors who pander to children, Lewis writes, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can lượt thích only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”


What a beautiful idea. And how perfectly stated. Lewis is not saying that adults determine which books are good for children, but rather that the truly good books for children are those that fall in the center of a Venn diagram, where one circle is books that children lượt thích, and the other is books that adults like. But as much as I enjoy this idea, and as much as I like the waltzing metaphor, why should this be true? If we are asking what makes a good book for children, why should we care what adults think of it at all?

I asked Laura Amy Schlitz. “I think,” she said, “you’re really dealing with two questions here: What makes a children’s book good, và what makes a children’s book lit-ra-phụ thân.” She went on, “Some children’s books are like children’s shoes: they fit children perfectly, but they don’t fit adults, và in time children outgrow them. ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ on the other hand, is literature. It has breadth & depth, và it’s beautifully illustrated và cadenced. I’ve read it hundreds of times to lớn children, và every now and then I take it out and read it khổng lồ myself. I never grow tired of it.” Sendak? Again? Damn you, Sendak!

What good, though, is calling a children’s book “literature”? Doesn’t that just permit us khổng lồ alloy children’s opinions with adult ones? We give children’s shoes khổng lồ children because they fit children’s feet. And why would we denigrate a waltz that can only be danced to? Children, in particular, are made lớn dance.


One of the best things about being a writer of fiction, as opposed lớn, say, a philosopher or a theorist, is that when I am faced with a tough question, I don’t have khổng lồ choose a single answer. I follow the prophet Walt Whitman: I contain multitudes, and I contradict myself whenever I choose to lớn. In the case of determining chất lượng in children’s books, I have two answers.

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The first guides my writing process, & is therefore content-oriented. I aspire khổng lồ write books that are so exciting that my readers will want to lớn devour every page, và are rich and thoughtful enough that every page will be worth devouring. Authors who ayên ổn khổng lồ write serious & important books for children sometimes forget that if a child isn’t motivated lớn finish a book, then all that fancy stuff halfway through becomes nothing more than self-serving. Authors who aspire only to lớn write mere entertainment, on the other hvà, are missing an opportunity: If you’ve sầu got a kid’s attention, why not put it to lớn good use? More importantly, children want to be challenged, made to lớn think & reconsider; they want khổng lồ learn & grow & become wiser. Kids will lượt thích a book with a great story. But they will only love sầu a book that makes them see the world in a new way.

But I also have sầu a results-oriented answer, because, once my books are written, I want to lớn know how I’ve done. If a child opens a book, reads every page of it, closes it, clutches it lớn his chest, and says, “I love sầu this book,” then it is a good book. Do kids clutch “Goosebumps” to lớn their chests? Some bởi. Many others clutch “Where the Wild Things Are,” or “The Lion, the Witch, và the Wardrobe,” or “El Deafo,” because those books help them find meaning in life, be it moral, psychological, or ineffable.

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It’s not important, in the kết thúc, whether a child is waltzing to lớn Tchaikovsky or khổng lồ Strauss. The most important thing is that she is waltzing.


Chuyên mục: literature