||Cut the Crap about 'Kiddy Litter'!
by Joan Clark
Writer: Did you start writing children's stories and work up from there?
Me: I started with adult stories and worked up from there
EVERYONE KNOWS THAT WHAT WE CALL LITERATURE WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT the territorial imperative, that compulsion that drives some of us to stake out an area of the imagination and intellect and copyright it as ours. There is a down side to this. Territorialization can and does lead to rampant categorization that fences writers in.
There are of course any number of ways of categorizing literature. By genre: poetry, stage plays, short stories, etc.; by kind, if that is the word: experimental, traditional, historical, sci fi, etc.; by the reader's age: adult books, children's books, sub-categorized into pre-school, pre-adolescent, young adult. And so on.
Most writers stake out one or two categories in which to work; others three or more. Most of our reading falls within these categories. Given the time and energy required to write a good book, and the volume of books to read, we cannot hope to be knowledgeable in any but a few categories. We read and write what matters to us; we build on our strengths, our predilections. We refine and define our taste. We develop preferences. It seems the deeper we burrow into a territory the more pronounced our myopia. Praise the writer who can see over the top of the fence. Who retains some long-distance vision. Who is open-minded in terms of attitude and perception. Who can see through and past the categorizations. Who is aware of marginalization based on race, gender, geography, age.
Writer: I read one of your children's novels my eleven-year-old brought home. It was so powerful and absorbing I couldn't put it down!
Why are you surprised?
Consider the obvious, mainstream categories of Canadian literature and you see the elevation of some and the dismissal of others. We all know the pecking order. Maybe because literary fiction is an endangered species, it's on top, the edge being given to the novel, then linked short stories, followed by short stories. Poetry, also endangered, is arguably next. Then comes creative non-fiction and stage plays. At the bottom of the heap are children's books, known to some as "kiddy litter." Since the pecking order is reinforced by the media, those who need evidence of the place children's literature occupies need only listen to the CBC or read the Globe and Mail. Writers of children's books are rarely interviewed on the CBC or in our "national" or any newspaper. A writer who longs for recognition and prestige among the CanLit crowd is, with a few exceptions, unlikely to find it by writing children's books.
I admit that those of us who work in the children's literature field are inclined to be chippy and defensive about the territory we have staked out. There are reasons for this. Consider the comments I've scattered throughout this article which writers of adult books have made to me at one time or another about working in this field. How condescending can you get?
Beneath these gratuitous and sometimes well-meaning remarks is a bedrock of condescension a metre thick and layered with the following assumptions:
-- writing a children's novel is very different from writing an adult novel
-- writing a children's book is something you dash off on the run for a lark
--a children's book is a watered-down version of reality. It's like serving up leftovers from an adult meal
--writing children's books is for those of us who see the world in black and white, who like happy endings and pretty bows
--writing for children is for those who like to write short books
I could go on, but you get the drift.
That's such a good idea. It's a shame to waste it on a children's novel.
It won't be wasted.
Most adults, writers included, wouldn't dream of reading a children's book unless required to by circumstance. Writers of children's books are rarely asked to read their work to an adult audience. The fact is some of us are more interested in children and their point of view than are others. I don't expect most writers to read children's literature; most adults are, quite naturally, more interested in the adult point of view. But I do expect -- and I don't think it's an unreasonable expectation -- writers of adult books, journalists, critics, the media, government agencies, publishers, in short those actively involved in CanLit, to shed their thick-headed, condescending attitude towards children's literature.
In my experience, writing a children's novel is neither easier nor more difficult than writing adult fiction. The fact is some stories are more difficult to write than others. The difficulty of any story has to do with what is being risked, with how the story shifts and slides, with problems of craft rather than genre. Being able to pull off a story depends on a writer's readiness at a given point in time: for both obvious and mysterious reasons, we are better suited to write some stories than others. That "match," for lack of a better word, accounts for much of the difficulty or ease with which we write a particular story.
The period of gestation also has something to do with the difficulty and/or ease of writing a story. Recently I published an adult novel, Eiriksdottir, and a children's novel, The Dream Carvers, which I wrote in that order over a period of five years. These novels shared the same material, though not the same preoccupations, and I had them both in my head from the beginning. Eiriksdottir was a difficult novel to write; The Dream Carvers was written with relative ease. (I say relative though I wrote several drafts.) The reason for this was not because it was a children's novel and shorter (226 pages) than the adult book (371 pages), but because I had been living with it inside my head for four more years. In any case, the difficulty a writer encounters in writing a story doesn't mean the result will be a better book.
Writer: How do you write a children's book? Do you spin out the stories you tell your children at bed time?
Me: I read other writers' books to my children at bedtime, as I imagine you do.
Children's novels are not necessarily shorter than adult novels. Length does not always mean substance. The best children's novels are not simplistic. Rather, they suggest complexity without being unreadable and obscure. Good children's literature never condescends; a writer's condescension is the kiss of death. It does not ignore the profundity of life. As the English writer Alan Garner once said, the big questions are asked in childhood. A reader would have to go a long way before finding a book more profound than Natalie Babbitt's children's novel, Tuck Everlasting.
There are those, Alan Garner among them, who prefer not to acknowledge the children's literature field, believing that literature for all ages should be together on the shelves so that readers can read across arbitrary categorizations. I agree: in a perfect world this would be so. I find the categorizations claustrophobic. (Just as I find the labels postmodern, traditional, historical fiction, etc. often misleading and confining.) The reality, however, is that we live in a world where children are all I too easily set aside. Children's interests and concerns are not, and never have been, valued enough. In our society the job of caring for children earns little money and next to no prestige. (Children's books are not, by and large, big income earners.) For these reasons marking out the territory of children's books is probably necessary and in children's best interests.
I write children's novels because I am interested in the questions asked by chiIdren. I am interested in and share some of their preoccupations. I enjoy them as readers. I place my optimism for the survival of Canadian literature not in adults but in children. That is why, in spite of the kiddy litter crap, I expect to be out there again one day staking out -- dare I say it -- another plot in the territory of children's literature.
Writer: I was going to buy your book but it cost too much for a children's book.
Me: Even if it's read over and over again?