A few weeks ago, I was on a panel of MG fantasy writers at Books of Wonder in NYC, and one of the attendees asked:
How do you manage to write in a voice that engages a child’s interest when all of you (he inserted a half-apologetic smile and shrug here) are well past being children yourselves?
The panel members answered the question individually, but basically we all had the same answer, in slightly different words:
In our heads, we are still children.
To be completely honest, I think that answer should have been obvious. I was, after all, sitting next to a grown man wearing a cardboard Pharaoh’s headdress.
To be a writer of children’s books, you need to be a child inside. You need to write like a child would write (except with the skill of an adult), and you need to read what your child-self wants to read. I’m not saying that I never read adult books, but the vast majority of what I read is chosen to entertain my child-self, not my adult-self.
In fact, an elderly librarian recently confronted me on my reading selections. I had just checked-in a stack of MG fantasy and adventure books and was checking-out more of the same. She looked up at me, squinting in puzzlement, and asked: “This is what you read?”
Behind her, a librarian who knew me cringed in embarrassment. For my part, I was rather shocked by her question. I said, “This is what I write, and this is what I read.”
At first, I thought that was going to suffice, but then she asked, “Why? So you can find ideas?”
I bit back my first thought: Right. I have to steal ideas from other books. Instead of being sarcastic, I gave her a better, truthful answer. “No. This is what I like to read.” I wasn't picking out these books as research or to learn the market or assess the competition. I wanted to read them.
She clucked her tongue and promptly suggested other titles I should try – all of them adult memoirs or literary fiction. The kind of books that makes my child-self want to say, “Yuck. Sounds booooooring.” But I didn’t. Because I respected her reading choices in a way that she wasn’t respecting mine.
For all I know, maybe this librarian comments on everybody’s choices. “Thrillers? Is that what you read? Basket weaving? Is that what you read?” But I doubt it. She disapproved of an adult woman coming into the library and checking out nothing but children’s books and she thought she could improve me by suggesting something of supposed greater value.
That’s exactly the kind of person who cannot write children’s books and who will never capture a voice that engages child readers. The best children’s literature is written by adults who think they are still children, not by adults who want to "help" children grow up.
I am proud of my reading choices. But I do regret that I didn’t snag one of those Pharaoh headdresses from Michael Northrop to wear the next time I visit the library.