Well, no. He didn’t say it quite that rudely, but that’s exactly what he meant. He looked at the old lady standing in front of his high school class in creative writing—and I must have been twenty years younger then—and clearly couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How could such a crone possibly think that she knew anything at all about what it means to be a kid?
I don’t remember exactly how I answered the question. I could, of course, have given the response once offered by a famous children’s editor: “I was a kid once myself and I haven’t forgotten a thing.” I suppose I said something about inner truth, the truth of my own childhood experience, a slight variation on Ursula Nordstrom’s response. I just know that my answer didn’t satisfy him.
It’s a strange business, this writing out of one world what is meant for another. I can’t think of any other field where artists create for an audience so unlike themselves. And doing so comes with built-in hazards: What do we truly know? Even if our remembering is accurate, have children–and has childhood itself—changed so profoundly that we’re deceiving ourselves to think we can create their stories?
It’s one thing to do this kind of writing during our own early adult years when childhood experience stands close or even during the parenting years surrounded by real-life children. It is another entirely to continue to do it out of the quiet, orderly, mostly childless life I live now. I’ve known some writers for young people who moved up in genre, picture book through young-adult novel, as their own children grew and then dropped out of the field entirely when their source of inspiration emerged into adulthood.
I began writing for and about eleven- and twelve-year-olds before my own children had reached that age, drawing from a particularly awkward time in my own life and still close enough to feel it acutely. As my children came into the age I wrote about, I took great care never to use them as material. It would have seemed an invasion, a violation of our intimacy to do so. But their lives and the lives of their friends teaming around me certainly gave energy to my work. My interest in picture books blossomed with the birth of my first grandchild. So I have both used my own childhood and drawn inspiration from children around me through my career.
Now my childhood is far behind me and, to be frank, of less intense interest to me than it used to be, and even my grandchildren—except for one lively afterthought—have mostly grown beyond the ages for my books. So it’s not surprising that from time to time I find that boy’s long-ago question floating between me and this screen. What does make me think I can still write for kids?
I look back at my own early novels and detect a slightly dated quality rising from them like a slight odor of must. They were fine in their time, but something more, something different seems to be happening now, not just to kids but to the stories adults—most far younger than I—create for them.
I once heard an editor say she had turned down a novel from a well-known, long-established writer. “If you were in any other field,” she had told the writer, “you would be retired by now.” That was quite a while ago, but I was old enough when I heard those words to cringe. And I have never forgotten them.
I am definitely old enough to have retired. And I must admit that writing for young people these days has much more to do with plying skills I have sharpened over the years and still love exploring—not to mention that it has to do with supporting myself—than with either remembering my own childhood or responding to children around me.
What makes me think I can still do it? Well, simply the fact that I’m doing it, I suppose, that my work is being published, that my books are being read.
And I know that answer wouldn’t have altered the twisted skepticism on that boy’s face by a millimeter.