Inevitably, I am asked why I choose to write for children. I have, after all, written two "real" books, heavy tomes on heavy subjects for serious-minded readers. What, people wonder, could have possessed me to bring myself down to the level of a ten year old?
Perhaps, the question often implies, I'm not that bright, after all, not capable of keeping up with the great writers of our time. Maybe I've suffered some sort of brain injury.
Recently, Martin Amis, a "great writer of our time," a writer who professes not yet to have suffered serious brain injury, told an interviewer that, until he did suffer such a trauma to his grey matter, he would never write for children. "The idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me," he said, "because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."
Although perhaps a children's author shouldn't use such language, I can't help but call bullshit. Fiction is not freedom, not at all.
Writing fiction, as Amis well knows, is the craft of finding truth within the limitations of language; it is an art of choices and of self-imposed restraints. Every word and every action and every character creates a new set of limitations and cuts off certain paths, just as it opens others. The relation of those choices to each other creates the world of the novel. Its success at living within or defying those limitations are the measure of fiction that works and fiction that doesn't. This is true for novelists of Amis's ilk and true for those of us who write for children. We are all yoked to language, learning to love our burden and to live as freely as possible within it.
But those of us who write for children do indeed have added constraints, which Amis dismisses, and which are, I think, the greatest strength of young people's literature. Amis may, as he claims, write without any consciousness of his audience, but children's authors aren't so self-obsessed. We write because we are conscious of our audience, of its hunger for story and its need to see the world reflected back at it through other eyes.
I choose to write for children because one never loves a book as much as one does when one is young. And one never hates a book as much either. I can be happily indifferent to Amis's Yellow Dog, but I can never forgive Esther Forbes for Johnny Tremain. We all have such books.
I also choose to write for children because of a Congolese orphan I met in a refugee camp in Tanzania ten years ago (I've told his story before -- it bears repeating). When we met, he was 12 years old and he loved to read. He had little else going for him: he wasn't terribly popular with his peers; he had no parents to look after him; he had no real prospects for the future. Congo was still in the midst of internecine warfare that would kill millions. This boy even drew me cheerful pictures of himself dead and buried, free from the miserable confines of his young life.
There wasn't much I could do for him. I was leaving within days. I gave him a copy of The Little Prince in French and English so he could practice and so he could read a little about another refugee child on his own, far from his home world, trying to make sense of things. I gave him the book because he loved to read. I gave him the book because he lived in a world filled with too little kindness. I gave him the book knowing that it would change nothing about harsh reality of the life he was living, but knowing that it might mean something to him. Ten years later, the boy is still alive, a young man now, struggling, but surviving and trying to help other orphans in his community, against nearly impossible odds. The book I gave him, and others I sent over the years are certainly not the reason he survived, but I like to think they played a role. I know that within those books he could find the tools for resilience that are essential for survival.
As the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote in The Uses of Enchantment, "In order to master the psychological problems of growing up... a child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious. He can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams." A story that can truly help a child to grow, he asserts, must give "full credence to the seriousness of the child's predicaments, while simultaneously promoting confidence in himself and the future."
An easy task for intellectual lightweights, Mr. Amis? While you spin your daydreams for yourself, with feigned indifference to your audience, those of us who write for children are taking on the task of equipping our readers for survival. It's not always as dramatic as an orphan in a refugee camp; it can be as simple as a bad day at school or making a new friend or losing an old one, but story, when done well, can be a sanctuary for a struggling mind, reeling with the changes that childhood piles on. It is indeed a murderous world out there for many children and even those little earthquakes of the quotidian can be hard to handle, let alone the seismic shifts that sweep through the lives of the 21st century's young.
EB White, a writer who no one would accuse of writing with a serious brain injury, said it best. He once told an interviewer that, "anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth."
Amis can keep his self-fulfilling exile of the mind -- and we'll hope his brain remains undamaged. He wouldn't make much of a children's author, anyway. Their brains, after all, are still coming alive.