Why I write for children
(This is an edited excerpt from the speech I recently gave at the Scholastic Authors' and Illustrators' dinner.)
I'm happy to be among people who love children's books tonight. It feels like a room full of friends, and I need friends I need someone to have my back. You see, I sort of just picked a Twitter fight with Joyce Carol Oates.
Yeah, some of you are already laughing at me. After all, Oates has published 40 odd novels. She has a national book award and three Pulitzer nominations. She teaches at Princeton. And, notably, she has 20,000 odd twitter followers. So this was perhaps not the smartest thing I ever did.
But this is what she said: <blockquote><strong>A "literary writer" is one who writes as he/she is fated to write--subject matter, style, & vision not very negotiable. "Commercial writer"?</blockquote><blockquote>
Not suggested as dogma but the "literary writer" may be more entranced with language, the "commercial writer" with storytelling.</strong></blockquote>
I don't know. I guess I was having a day. Another day when someone asked me if I'd ever considered writing a book for adults. And we all know this question, don't we?
The other day I was at my dayjob but off the clock. I was deep deep deep in writing and an acquaintaince happened to spot me. Now, I had my papers all spread out and was talking to fictional people. I may even have been rocking back and forth. I, let's say, occasioned comment, and this was his: "What on earth are you doing?" He's one of those high corporate important fellows, very ho-ho-ho how droll -- you know the type. "What on earth are you doing?" he said "Writing a novel?"
And I said: "Yes. Yes I am."
His doubletake was CLASSIC. But he did recover the upper hand. He said: "But it's for children again, right?"
Yes. Yes it is.
And you know what? It's a great book. It's a book I believe in passionately. It is every inch and ounce as good as I can make it. It is ambitious and archetypical, but it is also intimate as the little voice that spoke to Elijah. And yes, it is for children.
What I wanted to say to that fellow - what I said to Joyce Carol Oates - and what I want to say tonight - is that there is no contradiction in this. It is possible for something to be a great book, and a book for children, at the same time.
And this is a splendid thing, and important thing. Because what books do we love as much as they books we love when we are children? What books are more important to us? What books change our lives more than the ones that change us when we are children? How do we read at all, as adults, if we don't first learn that wonder? Yes. A book can be a great book, and a kid's book, at the same time.
This is not to say that there is no peculiar magic in writing for young people. In fact I think there is. For instance. At my day job - which is actually an awesome job -- I write about science. Recently I had to do a piece for kids answering the question "what is space?" In it I used the word "matter." Now, that's a word you know, and it's a word I know. But it's probably not a word a seven year old knows, and therefore when I used it I had to think about what I really meant by it. If I define it as "a scientific word for stuff" then why don't I just use "stuff"? You have to understand the power of the name "matter." You have to understand what it means to name things: the spell it casts.
That's what I like about children's fiction--you have to strip away a layer of preconceptions and assumptions. You write closer to the bone. You write bigger. It's the opposite of the cleverness that afflicts too much literary fiction.
I also like that in children's literature there will always be a story. The book may be total dreck, but it will always tell a story, because teenagers won't put up with books that don't. Someone made them read Mill on the Floss recently and now they are just DONE. Since I like stories above all things, this suits me.
So when Joyce Carole Oates tweeted that the other day, that " a literary writer is entranced with language and a commercial writer is obsessed with storytelling, This is what I tweeted back.
<strong><blockquote>Another way of saying that is: a commercial writer is not allowed to dispense w/ storytelling, while a literary writer is.</blockquote></strong>
I know. Them's fighten' words. We should be careful about how judge each other on Twitter -- it's easy to sound dogmatic and combative in 140 characters. In fact, I think it wasn't until the next tweet that I said anything useful, and it was this:
<strong><blockquote>love of storytelling and love of language need not be at odds.</blockquote></strong>
Literature is full of storytelling poets. Heck, this ROOM is full of storytelling poets. We as writers don't need to pick. We as readers shouldn't have to pick.
So, when people like Oates - and heaven knows she's not the only one - when she talks about the god-given impulse of writers to write - our not-negotiable subjects and forms and all that - when she does that and shuts commercial and genre and children's writers out if it, I feel as if she shuts me out of my own experience. I am writing because I love to write. I am writing what I was given to write. I am writing the best books I can. And really. Aren't we all?
But this is getting a bit highfalutin. I don't write young adult fantasy because it's the highest literature in the world. I write it because it's what I like to read. I'm 41 now and I'm not really much more grown up than I was when I was 14. Still hanging out with a small handful of geeky people. Still hiding in the corner of the library. Still got my head in the sky and my nose in a book. So maybe I haven't changed.
But I have learned one important thing. I have learned not to be embarrassed. I'm not embarrassed about who I am. I'm not embarrassed about the books I read, even if someone crunching the text through a Flesch-Kincaid calculator thinks I should be. I'm not embarrassed to write for children.
There's nothing I'd rather do.