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The Spirit of Words: Building Children's Books

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This past weekend I attended a panel at the New York Public Library on translation in children's literature. The discussion was appropriately titled Lost In Children's Literary Translation and was put on by the venerable children's blogger and librarian, Betsy Bird. The panelists were editors Mark Siege, Cheryl Klein and Claudia Zoe Bedrick and translator Edward Gauvin. They talked about translated works, their merit and struggles in the children's world. It's a topic I (admittedly) have not given much prior thought and I was pleased at how informative the hour turned out to be. What I found truly fascinating, however, and what I'd like to talk about here is a discussion the panelists had on spirit verses word accuracy. Let me explain.

Someone posed the question: "In translated children's works what is more important, getting the words exactly right or staying true to the spirit of the book?" The "spirit" of a book is its emotional persona. In the children's world, the spirits of books are often playful, fun, thoughtful and hopeful. On the other hand "word accuracy," for the purposes of the panel, has to do with how closely matched a particular word is to the original word in its native language. For instance many of the translated versions of Harry Potter have different names for "Hogwarts," "Ravenclaw," etc. Some of these words don't scan as well in foreign languages and instead of remaining true to the English text, translators have opted to give their audiences words that will evoke the same emotional responses we, as English readers, get from seeing the originals. For instance "Hogwarts" appears as "Poudlard" in the French text.

Across the board the panelists seemed to agree that the "spirit" of the book was more important. I found this particularly insightful because 1) As a picture book writer I know what it's like to agonize over every single word of a text 2) I find the debate applicable to all children's books, not just translated works and 3) It never occurred to me that these two things (words and spirit) might be mutually exclusive. Which is ridiculous, of course, because that's assuming that writing books is an effortless undertaking (an assumption very much akin to stating that all New Yorkers are Yankee fans: simply untrue).

Writers often like to talk about how intuitive the writing process is but in truth building a book is a remarkably unintuitive task. Or, to put it more accurately: you need a lot more than intuition. You need plot and characters. You need a setting. You need a theme that is relevant and supported by your text. Occasionally these things all come together from the beginning but more often they don't even start talking to each other until the second draft. Books are built from the ground up yet sometimes the windows go in before the walls. And, in my experience, sometimes you need to understand the spirit to write the words and other times it is only through writing the words that you discover the spirit.

I have often said that I think children's books are like poetry. Finding the exact right words to tell a story is something all writers, regardless of genre, are challenged to do but it is in children's that the art of selection really becomes an art. Children's authors have to pick words that reflect the spirit of a book and convey its message but also words that light children up, that children will recognize. Words that inspire and comfort. Words that challenge yet don't patronize. Words that, well, mean something to them.

A couple of weeks ago I was doing a Nurturing Narratives session with two five year old children. One little girl, after completing her story, wanted to act it out. We all gathered around to watch her perform her original work, "The Music Girl in Look Alike Town." As soon as we were settled the little girl immediately went and hid behind a plant in her apartment. Thinking she was just nervous, I asked what she was doing back there. She came out and looked at me quizzically, hands on hips, "I'm the music," she said, "you never see the music, just hear it."

What got me was not only the methodical thinking behind the argument but also the fact that music, to this child, was a real, tangible thing. Not a sound or an airwave but an actual entity. Music is a powerful word for this child. When she sees it she's reminded of a spirit of excitement, of energy, and of real importance. I later asked her why she loved music and she told me her mother plays the piano and gives music lessons. Music means something to this little girl, something that the word "sound" or "noise" or even "melody" might not.

Which is why I agree with the panelists. While noise might be the more accurate term, music is the spirit word. It is the word that will light a child up and help them engage with the book. It will captivate them. And really, when it comes down to it, isn't that what we're after? Because what good are books if they are not loved? What good is any book if it does not lead to the next one and the next one and the next one? Part of the job of a children's author is to write books that will be remembered, definitely, but if I might go out on a limb I will say that the other part, the more important part, is to build books that will help children fall in love with reading. That, to me, is the real job.