Why Write for Children?

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.

P.L. Travers

P.L. Travers

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.

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17 thoughts on “Why Write for Children?

  1. Norma Gaffron

    After cleaning the kitchen, what a joy to sit down with my flavored coffee
    and read the thoughtful words of Marion Dane Bauer and P.L. Travers.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  2. writersideup

    Before I comment on the subject matter, I just wanted to ask/mention: have you seen “Saving Mr. Banks”? I LOVE this bittersweet movie about two people I admire so much, each in their own way: Walt Disney (one of my greatest creative muses) and P.L. Travers. (“Mary Poppins” has been a part of me ever since childhood when I first saw its premiere release at Radio City Music Hall and listened incessantly to the soundtrack album.) Her quote couldn’t be truer, and I’m sure the same sentiment has been expressed by Walt!

    OK, moving on…

    I love what you expressed in this post, Marion 🙂 I would think that what drives each of us who write for children, is both the same yet unique. Without getting longwinded (which I can do so easily), simply put: I keep adult content for short-lived storytelling, like movies. We live enough adult drama in our daily lives as it is. I much prefer the voice, content and subject matter of anything kidlit, from BB through YA, both for my own enjoyment AND to hopefully bring more of that to young people, whether it’s to amuse or enlighten.

    Great post, as ALways, Marion 🙂 Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Yes, I have seen Saving Mr. Banks. It was a delight. I’m always envious when I see someone–especially a woman writer–who is so self confident that she can be that difficult!

      Reply
      1. writersideup

        lol…I also think that along with self-confidence, the characters were so deeply a part of her (and intimiately based on her actual life), she couldn’t bear any form of manipulation of her vision, which was why it took 20 years for Walt to even get a sit-down with her! She was also very much a perfectionist, it seems. Of course, we don’t know how much of the movie was creative license, but I suspect, in our getting to hear some of the actual recordings of her during the adaptation process, it was pretty spot on! 🙂

        Reply
        1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

          I agree with you entirely. I think especially characters who are based on real people in your life can become almost sacred for the writer. I have had two novels made into films and both, at least in my eyes, were disasters. The transition from one medium to the other can be brutal. She was right to protect her work.

          Reply
          1. writersideup

            Marion, I wasn’t aware of this. Which films? And yes, I know that in my imaginary world, if I were to ever get my novels published, I’d have the same apprehension and fear.

          2. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

            The system won’t let me reply below your last comment, so I’ll try it here. The films were made-for-TV. My first novel, Shelter from the Wind, became a tv special called Rodeo Red and the Runaway. (Rodeo Red was a horse, and there is no horse in the book! That sums it up.) And On My Honor was also a thirty-minute made-for-TV film. I watched it once and have never been able to look at it again. It was terrible. Both made me understand how badly films can miss the book.

          3. writersideup

            Oh, Marion, this sounds heartwrenching. I’m so sorry for this 🙁 I’m imagining it feels much like I felt last November when I found out someone “stole” one of my unpublished books. I hate to use this word here, but it’s the most accurate: r***d—violated. Awful 🙁

          4. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

            It was painful, but what I figured out very quickly was that the books still existed, undamaged. The film was its own thing, and I decided not to worry about what it was. That was probably easier because as specials on TV both films came and went very quickly.

          5. writersideup

            That’s a very healthy, sensible, admirable—and true—way to look at that, Marion 🙂 I’ve wondered how J.K. Rowling handled (privately) the distortion of her books after “Goblet of Fire” since, in my opinion, they really started ruining the story from “Phoenix” on. Anyway, it’s a risk once we relinquish control, regardless of the venue.

  3. Carleen M. Tjader

    You are absolutely right, Marion. Energy, passion, excitement–especially when the words you put on the paper convey the story you want to write.

    Reply

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