Sunday, May 1, 2011

Believing the Children ...sometimes


            Editors and agents often warn us children's writers not to put faith in the praise that our own children, grandchildren, and friends heap on our cherished writing efforts.  The argument runs that they will love whatever we write.  It's a good point and something we need to keep in mind.  Although I understand the importance of these precautions, and would never mention the kids in a query letter or a pitch session, I wonder if there are also times when we would be wise to listen to the children.

            The children I know best all have their own distinct preferences regarding reading material, as with everything else.  As evidence of this discrimination, I have heard the following comments:  "This one's not so good, Pe'pe'," or "It's ok, I guess," or, more happily, "Now that, Pe'pe', is a cool story."  Sometimes these preferences are dictated by what they perceive to be cool among their peers, but just as often their choices are based on their own tastes and inclinations.

            If one is writing for children it seems that some of the most important feedback will come from the kids, themselves.  James Barrie was encouraged to write Peter Pan by the children of his dear friends, the Davies.  Some of Francis Thompson's best poetry was inspired by the children of his close friends and patrons, the Meynells.  A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh was named after a teddy bear belonging to his son Christopher Robin Milne, whose name and personality, as we know, was adopted by the other main character in those great stories.  Lewis Carroll (George Dodgson) was reputedly begged by Alice Liddell, the daughter of close friends, to write down for her the story he had made up of Alice in Wonderland.  Having written it down for her, he was later encouraged by the enthusiasm of the children of another friend, George MacDonald, to have the book published.

            While these childhood preferences may, in some instances be idiosyncratic, there are also common themes.  Luckily for us, these commonalities have been recognized by the best agents and editors, and have even been catalogued for us.  See, for example, the blog by Laura Backes, http://tinyurl.com/667968w

            If there is any truth in the maxim that our loved ones will love what we write, it may be because what we write for them is our best work.  And, in the case of children, when it doesn't come up to our highest standards - or theirs - I have found that they are unflinching in their willingness to say so.

            How about the children in your life?  Do they tell you what they like? 

4 comments:

  1. Great Post John Paul. You are right, children can teach us a lot. I like your examples like James Barrie and A.A. Milne.

    Happy Blogging!
    Kerrie

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  2. You're so right, John Paul. I've often said that when my sons become very polite, I know I'm (temporarily) out of favor for some infraction. They are now, and were as children, both honest and discriminating. Sitting still was never easy for the boys, but story time was cherished. They didn't have a problem with saying, "Not that one," though.

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  3. When kids may tell us what they don't like, we can often use this to determine what it is they do like. But most often, they just tell us "like it is" without forethought or prejudice. Though I might flinch a little bit at first, if I really listen to what they've said, I find they are wise beyond MY years...

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  4. Kerrie, yes AA Milne and Barrie are two of my favorites. Kathleen, I've visited three 1st grade classrooms in the past 2 weeks and it's been amazing what I've learned from them. It's like Dean said, "If I really listen to what they've said, I find they are wise beyond MY years." That's fun to quote, Dean. I should write about those kids in next week's blog.

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