On Thursday I’m off to Pembroke College Cambridge to talk to Creative Writing students from the University of Southern California about writing for children. I did the same thing last year and I began by showing them three passages, two of which were by writers for adults and one of which was by a children’s writer.
The texts in question were excerpts from Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell and The Shell House by Linda Newberry, the latter being the book for young people.
I asked them to decide which was the children’s book. One hundred per cent of the audience got it wrong and a substantial proportion said that the one book they were certain was not for children was The Shell House.
This was a perfect result for me because it provided just the springboard I wanted to talk about what exactly we understand by writing for children. It’s my contention that most adults, even many of those who express an intention to write a children’s book, haven’t the slightest notion what writing for children is all about.
Most people imagine that the line of differentiation is drawn in the area of subject matter. Put simply the question they ask is: has it got sex in it? If the answer is yes, then it’s not a children’s book. If the answer is no, then maybe it is.
In speech you automatically shuffle different personae all the time, adopting one voice and register for a friend, another for a police officer who wants to see your driving licence, another for a university tutor, and another for your five year old nephew or niece.
Getting the persona right for a children’s book means understanding children, which usually means liking children. Not just in the abstract either. You have to have experience of how children look at the world and you obtain that by getting down to their level, by talking to them, by playing with them, by enjoying their jokes, by seeing how absurd and how incredibly boring most of the adult word looks from down there.
Writing is a kind of acting. Every time you sit down to write you do a kind of magic act, changing your personality, putting on an invisible author’s hat. But the hat that children’s authors wear hangs on a different peg, in a different closet. You won’t find it as easily as you expected. If you want to know where to look, you have to ask a child.