Saturday, May 21, 2005

Writing for Children


This year, in addition to pitching and getting IN THE PANTRY, I have been determined to dust off several old (as in curling, dusty pages at the back of my desk kind of old) picture book manuscripts for children's books. In 8th grade I declared that one day I would be "a writer". I always knew I wanted to live in some funky New Hampshire house and write books for children--imagining myself as the Shirley Jackson of the children's book world (if you haven't read LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES, her memoir about writing and raising children in Vermont, go out and get it). A career approximating Cynthia Rylant's would also do nicely: over 80 picture books, early readers and middle grade fiction. She is as diverse as she is prolific.

This pursuit has been a haphazard journey. Before actually setting out to write for children, I have been a reader to children, my own of course, but also along the way a collector of children's books. When our daughter was a baby, I realized an explosion in children's picture books (this is a dangerous part of any bookstore for me). I began to purchase the ones I liked and tucked them away for my daughter at the age-appropriate time. Now I do the same for our sons. There is nothing like the gift of a book--at any age. I also have collected first edition classics and other out-of-print children's books when I can. [One "must have" in any home library are the "BOOK HOUSE" books, edited by Olive Beaupry Miller in the 1930s. My grandmother had a set for my mother and her siblings and I was able to duplicate that set by trolling used book stores. Wonderful stories and tales and illustrations, gathered in twelve volumes according to age appropriateness.]

Some of my favorite children's books have rural themes like COUNTRY DAWN to DUSK by Ricki Levinson, FROM DAWN to DUSK by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock (with the marvelous woodcuts of Mary Azarian), GRANDMOTHER WINTER illustrated by Beth Krommes and written by Phyllis Root, YONDER by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom, MIDNIGHT FARM and other books by Reeve Lindbergh (as well as books by her husband Nathaniel Tripp), ALL THE PLACES to LOVE by Patricia MacLachlan (which I can't read without weeping) and the regional stories of Lois Lenski. [The "Little House" series and CHARLOTTE's WEB deserve their own place in the children's literature pantheon, and to think they never won the Newbery Medal--E.B. White's story of a farmyard and "some pig" named Wilbur is the best book ever written for children, period.] There are countless picture books on the perpetual theme of the seasons of a farm and rural home places and their meaning in our lives. I never grow tired of them as they remind me of my own farm childhood and the special places I have known in the barns, fields, brooks and pinewoods. Several of my manuscripts were inspired by those memories. I have hundreds of farm books--either written for children or written by adults for adults who want to farm. Ah, the romance of the farm.

One of the themes of this weekend's SCBWI conference in Nashua, New Hampshire was how our home places and childhoods inspire us as writers (that is Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators and if I can figure out one day how to add links within my blog posts, this would be a good one--in the meantime, look for a link in the column at right). How can we not draw from home or the places we love as fodder for children's books?

I think one of the most disturbing aspects of this conference for me was the realization that YA is the "hot" market now. Young Adult fiction--and we're not talking Jane Austen here, sports fans. Some of these books are gritty, rough, at times hard on the stomach or psyche, but popular with the teenage market. Books like GOSSIP GIRL started the trend. I picked up a few books for my daughter, who will be 17 in another month, to read and comment on. Her take on YA? "Oh yeah, Mom, its all about drugs, sex, fashion and the issues we can relate to!" I hadn't noticed, really, what she has been buying at our local independent bookstore (that is the wonderful TOADSTOOL in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which really deserves its own blog). I was just glad she was buying books.

Whatever happened to embracing heroines who drove roadsters like Nancy Drew, who hung out with a gal named George and the "plump and winsome" Bess? Cute frat boy Ned Nickerson always took third place to Nancy's sleuthing and her two gal partners-in-crime. What about EMMA or pining over Heathcliff in WUTHERING HEIGHTS? Instead, books marketed to teenagers today are being written with great candor about child and drug abuse, alcoholic parents, and kids being locked in closets--all set amongst the backdrop of broken homes, of course. That's just a mere taste of a new, somewhat salty and unsavory genre. I just don't buy it, even if it speaks to teenage life today.

Now, I'm not being a "Pollyanna" by any means. As the parent of a teenage daughter I can attest to everything she says by either witnessing it first-hand or through the issues of her peers. High school ain't pretty and it wasn't so hot when I was there. It was just an illuminating experience as a reader, writer and a parent to learn more about the "Young Adult" market trends and realities and one with which I'm not necessarily comfortable. I'll take a well-written and illustrated children's picture book any day over raw teen fiction. The closest I've been to that scene, apart from being a mother of a teenager, is my newest delicious television indulgence, THE O.C., my daughter's favorite show. "Great research for YA," was one of the conference mantras, wink-wink. (And to be fair to the genre, I need to sit down and read some examples.)

Brian Lies, an author/illustrator, gave an excellent talk today about the inspiration he receives from the kind of childhood I remember: hanging out with your neighborhood friends until the cover of darkness or your parents called you in, coasting down hills by bicycle on car-less highways, playing all manner of games like "Red Light/Green Light" and "Red Rover", a childhood where the backyard and neighborhood were all the backdrop we needed for fun and play. He too chided the trendy in chlldren's literature, instead claiming the home place as a safe haven for children to return and an important realm to write about. Our children need the safety and security of a good book.

I have written a handful of children's picture book manuscripts in the past ten years but haven't dared send them out. They are among the most difficult writing I have done, perhaps because of the spareness of the text in terms of word count but also because I have high standards as a reader of children's books and I know that children do, too. I was fortunate for six years in 7th-12th grade to read every Tuesday with "Aunt Liz". Elizabeth Yates McGreal, author of the Newbery Award-winning AMOS FORTUNE, FREE MAN, in 1953, as well as many other books, was a family friend and I learned about books and so many things during our own friendship. We would read aloud books in the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis and historical fiction from her generation by Elizabeth Coatsworth and countless other books, including her own. In between chapters we would sip tea, nibble homemade cookies, and talk about the world. She was my first mentor in writing and a dear friend. My very first journal--red leather bound and all the way from London where she lived for many years--was from Aunt Liz. It would be the first of many journals I would keep over the years. [It is perhaps because of this childhood literary education in the 1970s that the whole "YA" market especially jars my sensibilities. The books I grew up on were not trying to be hip or cool or written for a particular consumer market--they were literary escapes. Who wanted adolescent reality?]

One phrase I did not hear mentioned this weekend, fortunately, was "celebrity author". There are numerous celebrities out there today (and I don't need to give them any more publicity in my wee blog!) who have published children's books in recent years. Some are well written and one has to wonder if they were ghost-written. Others are drivel but the publishers seem to grab them up because of the name sale value, natch! But what bothers me--after the enormous amount of television and other forms of publicity they receive--is that the trend seems to say, "See, ANYONE can write a children's book! Isn't this cute?" Most writers and others would never presume to audition for a Hollywood movie. So why can't these overexposed actors leave the craft of writing children's books to those who are writers? When I think of the wonderful children's books that will never make the New York Times Best Seller List™ because they weren't written by someone famous, it is distressing. It is also insulting to those who make their living--or at least part of their living--writing for children. Madonna (ok, I said the name of that which I would not say) has decided to save the "vapid and vacant" children's book industry with her brilliance. Her comments on a British television channel in 2003 went far to show how much of an idiot she really is--I'd love to send her a list of excellent representatives of children's literature and then fire off some discussion questions.

I look forward to the infusion of great energy and inspirations I gleaned from this conference...and before I lose confidence again, I'm going to send out a picture book manuscript in Monday's mail. And if I don't succeed, I will try, try again.

PS The picture, above, was taken at Cobb Meadow School's May Day, 2004 (you can soon link to their website at right). Each of our children has attended this magical preschool and kindergarten which focuses on the delights of childhood and doesn't worry about things like the alphabet or mathematics--time enough for these things later! The daily curriculum includes making houses, playing with soft cloth dolls, constructing things out of wooden logs, playing in the forest, a snack of homemade bread and soup and butter, story and circle time, and a natural craft or painting time. I could easily enjoy the rhythms of the Cobb Meadow day myself and it is both a pleasure and honor for our children to be there.

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