Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Writing children's books: an author of classics reflects on what it takes to succeed in this genre: giving young readers what they want

THIS MORMING'S mail brought a letter from a lady in Ireland. It said, "Please sir, advice [sic] me as to some good children's publisher (who would do the drawings), and I could send some of my stories that I hope they would be returned, as you can see yourself I am really in the dark about anything to do with publishers."

Why, I wonder, do quite a lot of people think that writing for children is some sort of an amateur lark? That letter from Ireland was not invented. I have it before me now. And from time to time I get others that are equally illiterate. I also get manuscripts. ("I enclose a children's story I have written. Please tell me how I can get it published. My husband thinks it is very good indeed.")

Writing for children requires just as much professionalism and skill as writing for adults. This is a subtle and a recondite truth, but there are many people who do not acknowledge it. It seems to me quite possible that the writing of a really fine novel for children is a more difficult undertaking than writing a comparably fine novel for adults. History would certainly seem to bear this out. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, celebrated adult novels must surely have outnumbered celebrated children's novels by at least a hundred to one. And even today, when every writer knows how lucrative a successful children's book can be, there are still far fewer outstanding children's books published each year than there are adult novels.

A lot of writers, you will argue, don't even try to write a children's book. You are right; they don't. But why don't they? Some, of course, simply don't want to, but most of the ones I have talked to answer quite honestly that they don't think they could bring it off. They could well be right. Some years ago, a big New York publisher had the idea of asking a selected number of the so-called best novelists writing in the English language each to write a short children's book, and a large enough advance was offered to tempt most of the candidates into having a go. The results, many of which I saw, were disastrous. The publisher lost a packet, and the project was abandoned.


This does seem to demonstrate, to some degree, at any rate, that a writer for children requires a certain quality of mind that is not necessarily possessed by a writer for adults. And, of course, vice versa.

Some of the best-known of all children's books were written by people who never wrote for adults at all--Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Captain Frederick Marryat. Rather fewer writers, it would seem, are able to do both adult and children's books equally well--Robert Louis Stevenson, James Barrie, E.B. White.

So what are the qualities a children's writer must possess as distinct from an adult's writer? I must admit, I don't really know the answer to this. But I do believe most sincerely that in order to write a good children's book, the writer must have a genuine and powerful wish not only to entertain children, but to teach them the habit of reading. Here is an extract from a little pamphlet I wrote recently for my publisher:

Childhood is the time when good habits
are acquired, and bad ones too. If a person
can learn to love books during childhood,
then that habit will probably endure
through the rest of life and will
give immeasurable pleasure and
solace. The adult non-reader of
novels is at a massive disadvantage.
Loneliness, boredom, illness,
unhappiness and many other conditions
that we must all suffer
sooner or later are made infinitely
more bearable when the victim is
an educated reader.

The prime function, therefore,
of the children's book writer is to
write a book that is so absorbing, exciting,
funny, fast and beautiful that the child will
fall in love with it. And that first love affair
between the young child and the young
book will lead hopefully to other loves for
other books and when this happens the
battle is probably won. The child will have
found a crock of gold. He will also have
gained something that will help to carry
him most marvelously through the tangles
of his later years.
I believe that the writer for children must be a jokey sort of a fellow, if you see what I mean by that. He must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things. He must be unconventional and inventive. He must have a really first-class plot. He must know what enthralls children and what bores them. They love being spooked. They love suspense. They love action. They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. They love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle. They love seeing the villain meet a grisly death. They love a hero and they love the hero to be a winner. But they hate descriptive passages and flowery prose. They hate long descriptions of any sort. Many of them are sensitive to good writing and can spot a clumsy sentence. They like stories that contain a threat. "D'you know what I feel like?" said the big crocodile to the smaller one. "I feel like having myself a nice plump juicy child for my lunch." They love that sort of thing.

What else do they love?

New inventions. Unorthodox methods. Eccentricity. Secret information. The list is long. But above all, when you write a story for them, bear in mind that they do not possess the same power of concentration as an adult, and they become very easily bored or diverted. Your story, therefore, must tantalize and titillate them on every page, and all the time that you are writing you must be saying to yourself, "Is this too slow? Is it too dull? Will they stop reading?" To those questions, you must answer yes more often than you answer no. Cross it out and start again.

Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was the author of the children's books James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and Matilda. Web: www.roalddahl.com. Many children are sensitive to good writing and can spot a clumsy sentence.

Source Citation:Dahl, Roald. "Writing children's books: an author of classics reflects on what it takes to succeed in this genre: giving young readers what they want.(FROM THE WRITER ARCHIVE)." The Writer 122.9 (Sept 2009): 16. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 11 Aug. 2009

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