As a big birthday fast approaches, the gulf between young peoples’ experiences and mine has widened considerably. And yet I continue to write for kids. I went from teaching high school English to photojournalism to writing and photographing children’s books. Through the years my students’ dialogue about the great themes in literature, poetry, art – ergo life – lived inside my heart and echoed in my ears. My young cousins were often about, arguing over who would recite their latest poem first, practically jumping over one another to talk about some crazy adventure. Those reverberations were a vital part of my work. The students are long grown up, and my cousins are adults with adult dispositions. Have the voices of our current generation changed? Are their issues different from mine? I think they probably are. But I’m not sure.
I dodge the “voice” problem somewhat by writing from the perspective of the person I’m interviewing. It’s not in my voice but the young person’s voice. But my books are not 100% participants’ voices. Some parts, like choosing the subject, is me, and that’s what I question. So the choice of narrative and presentation begs the questions to us all, “Are we still asking interesting, relevant questions? Are we still cool?”
A perk writing for children is that we are generous with one another. I asked a few experienced writers and illustrators to contribute their thoughts to this subject. I made it a point not to ask INK contributors because I hope you will add your thoughts in the comment section.
The first person to respond was Andrea Davis Pinkney. She said, “We all know the cliché that says, ‘real life is stranger than fiction.’ Well – when writing for children ‘real’ can also be funny, ironic, sad, thought provoking, and cool. This is why I write non-fiction and historical fiction for children. ‘Real’ can let a child see the world in a whole new way. ‘Real’ can change a young reader’s thinking about people, history, scientific facts, love, laws, wars, protests, rites of passage, family. ‘Real’ can show kids what’s real about themselves.”
Ellen Levine added her sharp activist’s eye, saying, “because even with all the world's madness, their eyes and hearts are still open. They understand the seriousness of injustice and also enjoy silliness with resounding laughter. Yes there are bullies and yes, dystopian fantasies are riding high now, but I'm banking on that combo of serious and silly.“
When Elizabeth Levy, and Bruce Coville were about to take off for a school visit in Egypt, I asked Liz to email me her thoughts, assuming she’d have plenty of time during long plane rides. “Oh, and ask Bruce, too.” But they got caught up in a revolution, not exactly a great time to ask a favor. I’m just happy they are home, safe and sound, to continue writing for kids. [Liz recently wrote about their experiences and posted it on her Website. Bruce has been posting on Facebook.]
Then I called Vera B. Williams, who said, “I’ve been thinking about that lately, too. Let’s talk about it over lunch.” A few days later at Co Ba, a Vietnamese restaurant, half way between her apartment and mine, we ate our way through the topic. Vera ordered Pho Bo and I had Banh Mi Bo. We topped it off with yummy homemade banana coconut muffins and Vietnamese coffee. What began as “just email me a few lines,” became part of a two-and-a-half hour conversation.
Vera got right to the point, “Well, why do you write for kids? I want to hear your thoughts first.”
Hmmm, I was hoping to get everyone else to talk about this so I wouldn’t have to. I write nonfiction for kids because they want to know truths. As a child, I must have paid attention to my family’s outrage when they discussed fundamental inequalities, especially during the civil rights movement. Their comments didn’t jive with watered-down textbook lessons I read in school. I wanted to know what was real, not the propaganda poppycock being fed to us in class. There had to be a better way to provide real information, even conflicting information.
Vera says, “My books come from a close connection from my own childhood. Even as a child I felt I was an advocate for children, that children weren’t treated rightly. My ambition was to be seen as a ‘knowing child,’ and to represent those children who were articulate and those who needed a voice. What’s in my books continues to interest me – working class families who were not portrayed when I started to do books. Writing for children is complicated. You’re not only writing for the children but the people who read to them. I feel it’s a duty to explain aspects of the world.”
Writing “aspects of the world” is something we all seem to have in common as children’s authors.
Vera continues, “I drew and painted and I wrote poems all my life. But I had more education as an artist. The question that comes to me is, have I used up my inspiration? Have I used up my own childhood’s voice? Cause that’s what’s in my books. And the answer is, ‘I’m not sure.’ What does Paul say?”
Paul Zelinsky had emailed me the following thoughts and I read them to Vera: “What I like to do best is to work with pictures and words to tell a story. And there is no better place to do that than in a children's book. I think everyone responds to stories in pretty much the same way, but you'll never take in a story with as much intensity or as great a belief as when you're young. I remember, in my childhood of reading, how wonderful the worlds felt that spread out before me; and the thought that my own work might have that same effect on other people, early in their lives, is an amazing one.”
Vera again, “What Paul said hits home. I can express three longtime things that I love: stories, the graphic designs in the shapes of letters, and pictures. To be seen and heard as you really are? I’m less certain that I have the voices of children right.”
When I talk with Vera I can hear the voice of a child, albeit an extremely profound and precocious child. As for me … oh hell, I write for kids! Birthdays be damned!