Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Training wheels

This happens to me and friends of mine who write for children quite a lot. Someone praises one of our books, then -- in an encouraging, coaxing tone -- says something like,
"Why don't you write an adult book? I'm sure you could do it."

This is meant as a compliment, I know, but I find the idea that children's books are training wheels preparing the author for the real two-wheeler insulting! I never have a gracious answer, either. To respond as though I think it's a compliment is impossible. To say what I think -- that children's books are actually HARDER to write than adult books and more important, too -- and then launch into a speech about why, would be rude and boring.

So I usually just say (truthfully) that maybe someday I will. I've wanted to be an author since I was four, but by the time I was a teenager, always imagined my books would be adult books (and great classics, of course). I don't know why I started writing for children; it just happened. I never planned it. It's true that I think I was better at being a child than I am at being an adult (who isn't?) -- but leading your adult life expertly -- being good at handling money, jobs, romantic relationships, blah blah blah isn't a requirement for writing for adults (think of Scott Fitzgerald!); and a happy childhood isn't a requirement for writing for kids, either. Just the opposite, probably.

So why DO I write for children, not adults? In some ways, I find the form limiting -- you can do things in an adult novel that you can't do in a middle-grade one (change the point of view, wander around in time, deal with social class and other things that children don't find very interesting)....but still, I write for middle grade readers.

Maybe it comes down to feeling like I have more to say to children than to adults, and that children are interested and will GET IT in a way most adults won't. I was once at a dinner party and someone asked what I was writing -- instead of giving the sound bite, which is usually what adults want when they ask a question, I gave a detailed description of the first chapter.

I could tell that the adults were bored, I knew I should stop talking, but I COULDN'T. Or didn't. The children at the table, though, were listening, their eyes fixed on my face -- expressionless, but listening. When I was done, the adults hurriedly returned to more interesting topics; the kids were silent, until, after what seemed like a long time but was probably really only a few seconds, the oldest --a girl -- looked at me and said, intensely, without smiling:

"That is SO funny."

That's the closest I can come to an answer. Why do you write YA or middle grade?


  1. This is an excellent discussion. As someone who works with young kids everyday, "getting" them is a lot harder than it looks. I agree that writing for the middle grade age level requires working within the confines of some constraints. To me, it takes a special type of writer to not only work within those limits, but also appeal to this age group. As a fellow children's writer, I get it! I applaud you for having the wisdom to be comfortable with why you choose to write for children. To me, there's no other group I'd rather write for.


  2. Thank you, Marissa. That means a lot.


  3. It's just a lot more Fun to write for kids than it is for adults. That's why I do it. Kids are willing to play with you, willing to imagine with you, willing to take that leap. Adults have to be led, with kids you just need to point.

  4. Writing for children challenges me to bring my whole writer self to the page--who I was as a child and who I am now as an adult, all that I knew, loved, feared as a child and all I know, love, fear now. It's a melding of past, present, and future selves. It's tough work, but when you get it right, and find a way to connect with child readers through story, there's nothing like it.

  5. There is little more satisfying than seeing a child laugh at something you wrote. Or, as in Libby's blog, very seriously state, "That is SO funny."

  6. Awesome post! Thanks for putting into words how so many of us feel. Just last night my mom tried to steer me towards more "adult" writing. I told her I would think about what she had said. Because how do you explain it to the person who is supposed to know you best?

  7. Definitely!

    I teach (in Japan) from 3 yr olds to 15 year olds. And one thing I love about teaching such young ages, is you make so much more of an impact.

    In the world of Children's Publishing, you can help a child define who they are. With adult works, it's rare an adult will be so affected.

  8. I think I write YA mostly because I still feel like a teenager inside, and I don't know if that's really going to change. That awkward transitional stage is still very understandable for me, and I enjoy the teen worldview of extremes in anything.

  9. Thank you! The best thing about blogging is feeling heard and then getting thoughtful comments.

    Vicki: that's funny about your mother and I think your response was really tactful.

    Mary, Jessica, Julia, Suzanne: thanks for sharing your reasons so frankly. It's interesting that we all have such different reasons -- and inspiring, too. Bringing my whole self to the page is something I need to do -- I tend to let eight-year-old self do too much of the talking. Thanks!

    Claire: Sometimes when I think about "impact" I worry that I"m being too grandiose--now I will think of your comment and remind myself that it's true. You DO have more impact on kids who love your books.

    And CL, thanks for telling me you loved the post. I always wonder.

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