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Writing Books for Children
Writing books for children is hard on the ego. Many adults, the ones who don't read children's books and so know nothing about them, think that what we children's writers do is "easy", or a "nice little hobby", or a fine way to "get your feet wet in the writing business" with almost certain publication a result. I remember Janet Lunn, the multi-awarded author of many fine novels, picture-books, and non-fiction for children, telling me she was once asked when she was going to write a "real book".

A children's book is a real book. In the case of a novel, it has characters that live in the readers' mind, at least one thematic element, a logical plot in which the characters' needs generate action and reaction and work inevitably to the plot's conclusion, and a structure and style that may be much more complex and layered than many books for adults.

I have written nine novels for children. They took me just as long to write as many novelists say they spend on their adult novels. The longest time I spent on one novel for kids was three years. From my own experience also, I assure you that short stories are as hard to write for children as for adults. Picture-books are as spare and cleanly beautiful and demanding as a long adult poem, or so I am told by my talented friends who can write them. In other words, children's literature is not easy to write.

C. S. Lewis, Professor of English at Cambridge University, wrote his famous Narnia books to please himself. "People won't write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself." He believed that "the proper reason for writing a children's story is because a children's story is the best art form for something you have to say."

Art form. Yes. Children's books are just as much an art form as adult books are. And, as Lewis also pointed out, a book that is worth reading at age ten must also be worth reading at any age thereafter. So, perhaps, the art of writing for children is actually more difficult than writing for adults, as it has a much larger audience to interest and serve.

In what ways do children's books differ from books for adults? One: they must please an audience of children and adults. Two: the protagonists are usually aged somewhere under eighteen; this means the characters are more limited than adult protagonists in their ability and freedom to perform actions they might wish to do. Three: they have themes that generally involve the common preoccupations and difficulties faced by characters of the protagonists' ages. Four: a children's novel is probably not going to contain kinky sex or over-the-top-gore or the kind of language that makes many adults cringe, though if these elements are required artistically to develop the theme and the characters of the children's book, they will be there.

Finally, and perhaps most important: children's books are not taken as seriously as adult books in this country. They are not reviewed enough, and there are far too few influential critics and academics studying them. Fine books can be lost or quickly forgotten in a country where perhaps a dozen critics with their own unique prejudices and finite memories are the only people considered of sufficient stature to speak about Canadian Children's Literature. It encourages an environment in which someone like myself, who has been shortlisted for or actually won every single award for children's literature in this country, has been able to make a living only by working ninety to a hundred hours a week non-stop for eight years, and that only by taking on many jobs that are not actually writing.

Somehow, it has to stop. Somehow, the majority of people in this country have to start showing writers for children that we matter. Otherwise more children's book writers will, after seventeen years, say (as I said), "Joyfully writing three or four hours every couple of weeks does not make up for all the other stuff I have to do to put food on the table." Other children's writers will be diagnosed (as I was, a year and a half ago) as medically disabled from exhaustion and stress and overwork and disappointment.

As for the readers of Books in Canada who write solely for adults: where do you think your literary audience is going to come from, ten years from now? Do you want the newly grown adults of this country to have read children's literature, or only books by horror borers like R. L. Stine and Christopher Pike?

The answer is painfully obvious. Your future audience will exist only if they are nurtured now by reading good children's literature. So stop calling us children's writers the purveyors of "kiddy litter"; stop protesting that a children's book can win a Governor General's Award just like the "real books"; take out a good children's book from the library, and read it. 

Welwyn Wilton Katz's latest novel, Out of the Dark, won the Ruth Schwartz Award and was shortlisted for many others.


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