Write for Children

Why I Write for Children: A Response to Martin Amis
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Every word and every action and every character creates a new set of limitations and cuts off certain paths, just as it opens others. The relation of those choices to each other creates the world of the novel.

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Its success at living within or defying those limitations are the measure of fiction that works and fiction that doesn't. This is true for novelists of Amis's ilk and true for those of us who write for children. We are all yoked to language, learning to love our burden and to live as freely as possible within it. But those of us who write for children do indeed have added constraints, which Amis dismisses, and which are, I think, the greatest strength of young people's literature.

Child's play

Amis may, as he claims, write without any consciousness of his audience, but children's authors aren't so self-obsessed. We write because we are conscious of our audience, of its hunger for story and its need to see the world reflected back at it through other eyes. I choose to write for children because one never loves a book as much as one does when one is young.

And one never hates a book as much either.

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We all have such books. I also choose to write for children because of a Congolese orphan I met in a refugee camp in Tanzania ten years ago I've told his story before -- it bears repeating. When we met, he was 12 years old and he loved to read. He had little else going for him: Congo was still in the midst of internecine warfare that would kill millions. This boy even drew me cheerful pictures of himself dead and buried, free from the miserable confines of his young life. There wasn't much I could do for him. I was leaving within days. I gave him a copy of The Little Prince in French and English so he could practice and so he could read a little about another refugee child on his own, far from his home world, trying to make sense of things.

I gave him the book because he loved to read. I gave him the book because he lived in a world filled with too little kindness.

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When writing for children, you have to strike a balance between being entertaining but not confusing; engaging but never patronising, and. Writing for children means thinking about your own past, while staying in touch with young people now, says Michael Rosen.

I gave him the book knowing that it would change nothing about harsh reality of the life he was living, but knowing that it might mean something to him. Ten years later, the boy is still alive, a young man now, struggling, but surviving and trying to help other orphans in his community, against nearly impossible odds. The book I gave him, and others I sent over the years are certainly not the reason he survived, but I like to think they played a role.

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I know that within those books he could find the tools for resilience that are essential for survival. This makes us all potential writers of children's books. I think of children's books as not so much for children, but as the filling that goes between the child world and the adult world. One way or another, all children's books have to negotiate that space, whether it's thinking about how the text of a picture book will sound when read aloud, or how the child views him or herself in a world run by adults.

And before it reaches the hand, eye or ear of a child there are many adults to deal with: And of course, more than likely, you're an adult reading this, so the moment you think about writing something for children, you'll be handling something or other from your own childhood.

This may be something you read, experiences of being read to, pleasurable or painful experiences from when you were young. There is also an interesting line between the child you once were and the children you know now.

How to write a picture book

If you want to write a book for children, you will find yourself travelling to and fro along this line, wondering one moment about what kind of child you were, why you had those particular tastes and interests, what depressed or excited you, what you were afraid of, what you yearned for; the next, looking, listening and thinking about the children you know or meet.

Are there big differences, or is there some core child-ness that is unchanged?

Is the culture and background you came from, similar or different to the kinds of children you know and meet now? If so, how does your writing reach them? So you know you want to write something. As you'll read in the rest of this booklet, children's literature has very specific forms or genres. It may sometimes seem to you that editors can only think inside specific boxes, whereas a book you liked, The Little Prince, say, defied such boxes.

How to write for children

So you'll hear from editors, comments like: Bafflingly, if you go to the library and pick up a pile of books, you may well find some that seem to defy such boundaries. Nearly always, that's because it's a famous author who's been granted leeway to write what they want - Roald Dahl's The Minpins is an example of that.

Over to You

Inevitably, I am asked why I choose to write for children. That's no bad thing, but quite often, I would suggest, this is not sufficient. The world of children's books is a very friendly, decent place to be. Writing children's books may be as lonely as any other kind of writing, but there is a big social element in how the books are taken to the readers. You are of course the first audience for what you write, but you want to make yourself the kind of reader who can pretend to be the reading child. These are the age groups that are most flexible and ever-changing. Instead, spend some time adding a few explanations and allow them to piece it together for themselves without getting too complex.

Or you've got in your hand a book produced by an independent company, a firm like Tamarind, Frances Lincoln or Barefoot Books. What this means is that any of us who write for children have to do homework. We have to be very aware of both what is being published and how people are telling stories these days.