Sunday, January 22, 2012

from the BRG archives: Does anyone do both brilliantly?

Quite often when adults hear that I write for children their first question is,
“Are you going to write an adult novel?”
This is always said very nicely, even eagerly, or in a slightly encouraging tone – as though children’s books are training wheels for the real thing.

I thought it was just something about me – but on NPR a few days ago Katherine Paterson said that people often asked her that, too. Why do people do this? Obviously, they think it's easier to write for children -- but do they realize how insulting the question is? That it implies that people only write for kids because they aren’t good enough (yet is often implied, too -- that's where the encouraging tone comes in) to write for grown-ups?

It’s not easy to write ANYTHING good – but I don’t think the age group that you’re writing for has anything to do with a book’s difficulty. It just takes a different kind of talent, or set of interests – and if anyone doubts this, think of how few people there are who have written great children’s books AND great adult novels. I really can’t think of anyone!

The closest is probably C.S. Lewis – I at least really like That Hideous Strength and Out of the Silent Planet; but are these books as good as the Narnia books? Louisa May Alcott and E.Nesbit both wrote trashy books for grown-ups, I’ve never been able to even finish any of them, and I’ve read their kids books over and over and over.

If you think this just proves the point that kids books are easier: Thurber's adult stories make me laugh (and still are read in literature classes), but I don't think anyone would still read the book about the Princess who wanted the moon(Many Moons ) if it weren't for the great illustrations. And Dickens and Thackeray would be out of print today if their children's books were their only books.

Robert Louis Stevenson did write for adults, and actually, some of his adult stories are pretty amazing (if you like well-written, well-plotted adventure stories) – but are they as good as the best poems in A Child’s Garden of Verses? I don’t think so. If you count YA, then I can think of one person: F.Scott Fitzgerald. His Basil and Josephine stories still make me laugh out loud. I especially love the ones about the ten-year old, totally obnoxious Basil (based on Fitzgerald himself), with his best friend who – no matter how crazy and impossible Basil’s ideas were -- responded to each one with an immediate:
“Let’s do it!”

But those aren’t BOOKS. Maybe there are people who write brilliantly for both age groups that I just haven’t read. If you can think of any, please put them in the comments! And another question: what do YOU say when adults ask if you’re going to write for adults? I usually just mumble no. No child has ever asked that question, by the way: they just say “Have you written any other books?” and of course, “other books” means – for kids. As it should.

Originally published February 24th, 2007


Kelly Barnhill said...

I can think of a few right off the top of my head: Neil Gaiman, Pete Hautman and Shannon Hale. Also Tate Halloway, James Patterson, Sherman Alexie, Diana Wynn-Jones and Nick Hornby. I know there are more, but I'm just not thinking of them right now.

And I do think it's crappy the way that adult books are oddly considered to be more "real" or more important, though I wonder if that's currently changing. Given the prevalence of YA and MG books in book clubs and library lists, I wonder if that distinction is starting to fade. My first children's novel came out last year, and my second is coming out this fall. When I told my neighbor that I was working on a novel for grownups, she looked at me like I was crazy.

"Why would you?" she asked. "Grownups are so boring!"

Anonymous said...

This is your karma..above, you mentioned trashy books with the same scorn people direct at you for writing kids books. Trashy books are actually romance and many times other writers call romance trash without knowing they are being insulting to a body of work that should be respected ... Practice what u preach

Linda C. said...

As someone who works at Random House children's and is an aspiring children's writer myself, I never understand why so many people think it's somehow easier to write for that audience! It's just on of those stereotypes, I guess.

@Anonymous--I worked with romance books a few years back and, unfortunately, romance writers tend to get a similar rap. I think Libby just used "trashy" to refer to how many might view the genre.

Libby Koponen said...

I wasn't thinking of any particular genre when I used the word "trashy." Books in all genres can be good, and books in all genres can be bad, too. Louisa May Alcott was the one who called her adult novels "trash," and they weren't romances -- they were melodramas or thrillers.

By "trash" I mean things that are poorly written and not true to the human heart. I think really good books tell the whole truth about complex emotions; they don't sentimentalize or sensationalize. I know it's fashionable now to say that everything is relative, that there is no such thing as good or bad writing; but I believe that there is such a thing and that, again, good and bad writing can and does exist in all genres.

Darrell B. Nelson said...

Ian Fleming!
Wrote both the James Bond series and Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. How's that for impressive.

Libby Koponen said...

I had forgotten that about Ian Fleming: thank you! And thanks for all the comments, everyone, and recommendations, Kelly: I love Diana Wynne-Jones and didn't know she'd written anything for adults. I also have never read any Nick Hornby and have been meaning to -- I loved the movie ABOUT A BOY. I will get some of these books tomorrow! Thanks.

posse said...

Roald Dahl. I adore all of his books for children. I also love his short stories for adults. "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar", "Taste", "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "The Great Switcheroo" are some of my favorites.