“You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it’s going to be too difficult for grownups, you write it for children.”
—Madeleine L’Engle
I recently had a conversation with a new acquaintance and when he discovered that I had written a children’s book he politely asked what it was about. When I told him the basic premise and that it was a novel his tone brightened a little and then he said “Some of the children’s books I see….There’s nothing to them. I could have written some of those books!”

I realize that he was probably talking about some of the board books that have nothing but a single word with a correlating picture, or something equally simple, (which really nobody actually “writes” those books so much as designs and produces them) but I always feel a little bit defensive when anyone speaks in a condescending manner about children’s books and the supposed ease of their creation. For the record, I started off wanting to write picture books because I thought it would be easier. When that didn’t work out, I went on to novels. I’m still trying to figure out the picture book thing.

Certainly, there are children’s books seemingly so simple it’s amazing to conceive that anyone actually gets paid to write them, and other children’s books written so poorly it’s nearly inconceivable that anyone would publish them. However, the seemingly most simple of books can actually be the most difficult to write. A SHORT BOOK DOES NOT MEAN IT WAS EASY TO WRITE. The fewer the words, the fewer places your sloppiness has to hide, and the more exacting you must be in so many ways. Every word must pack a lot of punch. And along those same lines, the younger the age, the more difficult to captivate. (My two and four-year-olds are the pickiest of readers. Not one it ten books captivates them.)

I recently read “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, a masterpiece, brilliantly executed. It was my favorite read in 2011. Whenever I read a book so ingenious I always take my time, sometimes reading passages over and over again to decode the skill of the author. No doubt, Steinbeck is a master in many areas, but I noticed something in his writing that I can rarely employ in my own. Space for long descriptions. Indulgence in lengthy elaboration. Pages and pages devoted to drawing up setting and characters in such vivid detail that you feel you know them inside and out.

Unfortunately a children’s writer rarely, if ever, has this luxury, due to the natural impatience of our audience. Whatever brilliance an adult author achieves in ten pages, a children’s writer must achieve in ten words. Some mistakenly think that less words equals less work, when actually it is precisely the opposite. I spend a lot of time trying to concentrate a lot of ideas and information, not to mention style and tone, into very few words and at the same time make it clear. And a bonus if it sounds brilliant. I would venture to say that most writers would agree that poetry is by far the most difficult form to master, followed by the short story, and then the novel. And indeed, it takes a kind of poetry to write for children.

I’m not trying to convince anyone that writing for children is always more difficult than writing for adults. I’m simply trying to convey that it’s harder than it looks. Every genre has its unique challenges, and one form or style or age group doesn’t necessarily deserve more respect or criticism than the other. There are some brilliant children’s writers out there who could write circles around a lot of successful adult authors, and vice versa.

No children’s author decides to write children’s books because they think it’s easier, and if they do, they quickly learn how mistaken they were and either set to work or quit. We still have to hone our craft just like any other writer, and there are things adults authors can get away with that would never fly in children’s books, content aside. I don’t write for children because I think it’s easier than writing for adults. I write for children because that’s where I live, it’s how I view the world, and quite frankly, I don’t have much to say to grown-ups. You’re not as magical as kids.

So next time you’re tempted to scoff at a children’s book, go ahead and try to write one and submit it to a publisher. You might find new respect for children’s authors. OR you might write a really awesome book and get it published. If you do, I’ll buy it! 


13 comments

    • gaylene

    • February 15, 2012

    • 2:20 pm

    So true. The first story I wrote just flowed out of my finger tips. Hundreds of pages of brilliant prose. Then I took a few pages to my first writer’s conference and learned that my entire story was totally cliche! To fix it would take years. So I took what I learned and decided to start a new story. And another one and another one. It might be easy for one-in-a-million writers, but for everyone else, it’s hard work!

  1. Gaylene, I think one of the hardest things about wanting to be a writer is coming to terms with the fact that maybe every word that flows from your fingertips is not brilliant and divinely inspired. As you said, it can happen and does, but more often than not, inspiration is a lot more work than most people care to exert.

  2. Preach it!

    The thing that makes me sad is to have well-meaning, well-read people ask when I’m going to write for adults. The implication (at least what I interpret it to be) is that children’s literature is practice and adult literature is the real thing. Why would children not deserve the best I have to offer?

    I’ve read East of Eden twice, the second time while visiting my parents. Not two minutes after I read the Mark of Cain scene, my dad walked in with a huge gash on his forehead. He’d been cutting branches, and one fell on top of him. Unbelievable timing, no?

  3. Whoa, Caroline that is kind of creepy. I loved that book and I’m looking forward to reading it again!

    And I have to agree with you— Children deserve the very best. If they don’t have good literature while they’re young, how can we expect them to recognize it, let alone appreciate it, when they’re grown?

  4. My passion is YA books–I have to convince myself to read any other books. So, naturally, that audience is my favorite in TV shows, and my favorite stories to write. SO MUCH is happening at that age. Everything is new, sometimes innocent, sometimes not, but fresh, and real and not calloused in so many ways. I love that the young adult is on the brink of EVERYTHING. One of these days, I’m going to wake up and realize that it’s no longer me. 🙂

    As for MG, I’m so glad people like you have labored to write these books. My son reads MG and he LOVES his stories, he loves to read! I have a couple of adult friends who prefer MG over everything else, and I think it’s because they’re so magical. I love that. I think I prefer YA for the romance, but I love a magical book.

    As for picture books, I LOVE when I happen across an adorable one and think, “Yay! The diamond in the rough!” I’ve never attempted to write picture books. They do seem incredibly hard.

  5. Mary, I think every author sort of lives in the in the age they write for. I’m constantly drawing upon my 12 and 13-year-old self and it’s both wonderful and painful! I also write YA and totally agree it’s such a fresh and exciting age. And I love how you describe MG as being magical, because it absolutely is, both to write and read.

  6. That is my favorite quote. And because of this post, you are my favorite person.

    Just yes. Yes to everything you said. I wish I had something more intelligent to add, but you said it all.

    Yay.

    <3

  7. P.S. You should turn off your word verification thing, if only to help your stupid friend Kate who can’t read it. I seriously had to try like four times just now to post that comment.

  8. Kate, I fully admit that I’m technically challenged when it comes to blogger, but I can’t see that there’s any setting to turn word verification. I don’t ever remember turning it on. Advice for a blogger idiot?

  9. Yeah it’s an automatic setting. Go to your main dashboard, click the link that says “settings” beneath the title of your blog, select the link that says “comments” at the top of the page, then scroll down to the choice that says word verification.

    • ilima

    • February 17, 2012

    • 3:58 pm

    Nice post. And so true. I write YA and hate that pity look when others learn who I write for. But for all those reasons you gave, I am terrified to even attempt a picture book. 🙂

    • Celesta

    • February 23, 2012

    • 7:46 am

    I followed you over from Kate’s blog. I’ve heard great things from her about your novel “Rump” and I’m excited to read it when it’s released!

    This is a great post and something I consider often when I work on picture books. I, too, have tried picture books and moved to novels. I’m always amazed at the deceptive simplicity of picture books. A well-written and engaging picture book leaves out most, if not all, description and leaves that job to the illustrator. People who read picture books, but don’t write them, don’t even notice the clever (and complicated) way in which that is accomplished.

  10. Thanks Celesta! Nice to “meet” you. I agree that most people don’t realize how complicated the dynamics of a well-done picture book can be.

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