The other day someone asked me the question every writer for children gets asked at least once, if not ten times: Why do you write novels for children? Don’t you feel that you might one day want to “move up to” writing for adults?
It’s the kind of question that tests a person’s social graces, not to speak of their temper, that’s for sure. It’s never a question asked, in reverse, of those who write for adults. And it’s a depressing reminder of just how anything to do with children gets shunted off into the “unimportant” basket.
But in some ways it’s a fair enough question too. Go into a bookshop and see how the “children’s section” is shoved off down the back, crammed into a few shelves. Look in any newspaper review section and see how many children’s books get reviewed, compared to adult fiction and non-fiction, regardless of comparative quality (it’s depressing to note that a stupefyingly dull and mediocre book for adults probably has more of a chance of being reviewed in the mainstream press than a beautiful, unusual and memorable children’s book).
Look at how, when a novelist who’s written mostly for children, writes an adult novel, it’s described baldly as his or her “first” novel, even though that author may have many novels for young people out there. Think of how seldom children’s writers are thought of as Great Writers, of the sort that define a nation’s identity, or set literary trends. For instance, when the Australian Magazine published, in late 1999, an issue on “The Greatest Writers of the Century/Millennium”, children’s authors were conspicuous by their absence in the lists. And yet the 140 years that had just passed had produced writers of the calibre of Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, Edith Nesbit, Carlo Collodi, George McDonald, Rudyard Kipling, A.A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame, J.M. Barrie, Tove Jansson, Herge, Jean de Brunhoff, St Exupery, C.S. Lewis, Leon Garfield, Alan Garner, J.K. Rowling, Patricia Wrightson and Ruth Park—to mention only a tiny fraction—writers who by any measure had produced some of the greatest, most timeless and most beloved classics in literature.
In fact, in my opinion, children’s literature is the greatest and most important literary movement of the last 150 years. It has completely transformed the face of reading, and re-zested twentieth-century literary culture, in particular, with its light touch, richness of invention, and haunting, subtle depths. And the crucial importance it attaches to story. Children’s writers, unlike all too many for adults, have never forgotten about story, which from Homer to Shakespeare to Dickens was at the very heart of the writer’s art.
The best children’s books transcend their time—and Winnie the Pooh, Aslan, Bilbo Baggins, Harry Potter or the Muddle-Headed Wombat have been, over generations, much more a part of most people’s mental furniture, embedded more deeply, than, say, Leopold Bloom or Lucky Jim or Humbert Humbert. But even when they remember their childhood books with affection (and most do), people still somehow unconsciously downgrade the artistry of those very books—which leads to the very sort of patronising question asked by my interlocutor. And as to the mainstream critics—the ones who think a book is only a book if it’s for grown-ups (a very immature attitude, seems to me)—don’t get me started!
So why would a writer really choose to write for children, knowing full well that your work is likely to remain invisible in the culture at large? And why on earth wouldn’t you want to move quickly into the “grown-up” arena?
Well, for me, it’s like this. I’ve written fiction both for adults and for children, but far more for children than for adults. And that’s first and foremost because I enjoy it more. Not because it’s easier—it’s certainly not—but because it’s freer in terms of imagination and invention. It’s the way my imagination works. Like most children’s writers, I also remember very well—in acute, sensual detail—what it’s like to be a child. I know that children enjoy reading—and that their tastes can range very widely.
Within children’s literature, I can write many more different sorts of books than in adult literature, where you tend to be typecast much more. I can tackle all kinds of genres, periods, stories: children’s publishers are open to all kinds of ideas. (Especially in fiction, children’s books sell generally more copies than in the adult field, schools and libraries buy more copies, and because the readership is constantly being replenished, publishers will accept more books—thus making it more feasible for a writer to actually earn a living from her writing.)
Despite what many people seem to think, it’s also a more disciplined kind of writing—children will not have the patience to persist with woolly, obscure or incoherent writing, even if the book has a gold prize sticker on the front. So you have to think more clearly, and sharpen your prose. Being gripped—carried away to the storyteller’s world—is what matters above all to children, so there’s no getting away with something that meanders, or that is plain boring. But equally characters matter enormously—whether archetypal or not, they must be vivid, strong and memorable.
What’s more, in my experience, the constraints that do exist in children’s literature, due to the age of your readers, act as a spur to creativity, making you approach things in a more subtle way than would otherwise be the case.
In the use of language, too, it’s a delight: for the challenge is to write clearly, and beautifully. The discipline imposed by that is, I think, the secret to the particular and timeless pleasure of the great children’s books, which combine freshness, simplicity, clarity, imagination and beauty in a striking way that never leaves your mind and heart.
And that’s the other reason I love writing for children: I dearly loved reading as a child. For me, it was an escape from difficult family situations but also liberation into new worlds. And it was absolute fun. That pure pleasure of reading, of the heady thrill of falling into a story, of literally losing yourself in a good book, a book you read over and over again, is something that’s very common in childhood, and happens less often in adult life. People remember the books they read as children, in a way that they will not always remember what they read as adults. The plain truth of the matter is that even these days people generally read a lot more as children than they do as adults: many never read again once they leave childhood, and even those who keep devouring books into adulthood read less than they did as children.
Quite a few times over the last few years, I’ve been approached by people in their twenties or late teens, who want to tell me how much they enjoyed reading my books when they were kids. One young woman told me how my books had become an integral part of the memories of her childhood, and that she would never forget what it felt like, opening a new book of mine and plunging into it.
That was such a beautiful thing to hear, the greatest validation any writer could hope for. And it was such an extraordinary thrill, too, for I remembered feeling precisely like that, when as a kid I’d come home from the library with a new book by an author whose work I loved, and the fantastic, scalp-prickling sensation of plunging into a magical world of adventure and experience.
Sophie Masson’s next novel, The Madman of Venice, the fourth in her Shakespearean series, inspired in this case by The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet, is due for publication in April.