All of us who write for young people have experienced it, that moment when someone asks what we do, we tell them, and they say, “Oh, that must be fun!” or “How sweet!” or a head-patting “Isn’t that nice!”
And we’re annoyed. This is serious work, after all.
But how often do we ask ourselves the unspoken question that lies behind that rather condescending response. Why do we choose children or young people as our topic, as our audience? Why are we compelled to reach so far back into our own psyches for our stories, particularly in a society in which anything done for children automatically has less value than the same thing done for adults? (Who has more status, the college professor or the kindergarten teacher?)
Perhaps it is, as some have suggested, that we children’s writers have never grown past a certain early stage in our development. Or maybe, as we ourselves are apt to proclaim, that we alone have retained the power of deep recollection, that we have kept the door open to that young heart that others have closed through embarrassment or inattention.
I’m not sure there is a ready answer to that question, or at least not one that confirms either emotional retardation or superior insight. (Perhaps we carry both? What about that insight?) But I do understand one thing, artists of every stripe are dependent on something as easily defined as energy to fuel their work, and for me—as, probably for all of us who choose to write for a young audience—that source of energy lies in my own formative years.
I remember the moment when I discovered the power my own childhood experience could bring to my writing. I was in college, taking the only creative writing course I ever privileged myself with, and I found myself putting aside the serious work of an adult short story and writing, instead, a single paragraph. The paragraph itself is long lost, but the feelings it brought to life have remained. I wrote of a moment in my very early childhood, of standing alone, barefoot on the sunny sidewalk in my back yard and then stepping off into the cool relief of the grass.
Just that. Nothing more.
And yet as I wrote those few words, something opened in me, an experience, an understanding. This was what it meant to be alive! This was what it meant to reproduce that aliveness with words! This kind of immersion in life-affirming minutia. As I wrote that paragraph I felt the sting of the hot concrete on my bare feet, the welcome tickle of the grass. Energy flowed through the words, an energy that fed me as well as the page.
For reasons I couldn’t have explained to myself or to anyone else, that moment mattered. That it was just about the smallest moment I could have imagined made no difference. Capturing it brought something alive in me.
I wrote that paragraph, set it aside, and didn’t return to childhood as my topic for many years, but the discovery I made that day never left me. And when I did finally come to a place where I was ready to turn my writing into my daily work, my topic and my audience were set. I never asked myself why I was meant to write about childhood, for children. I simply knew that I was.
P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins stories, has said, “You do not chop off a section of your imaginative substance and make a book specifically for children, for—if you are honest—you have no idea where childhood ends and maturity begins. It is all endless and all one.” And she was indisputably right. Childhood isn’t different in kind from our adult experience. But for some of us, the experience of being three or thirteen retains a poignancy adult experience can never match.
And it is reliving that poignancy that makes for serious writing, whatever the world’s opinion of our effort.