I’m teaching a class at the moment on writing for children. There are a lot of writing classes out there, and I think it’s easy to get lost in a world of conflicting advice. Make your chapters short. Make them long. Make them do the washing up while you relax with a nice cup of tea. These are all good things (the relaxing part particularly so) but I don’t think they help you write good stories. I think that comes from a certain confidence in yourself; the ability to recognise a story within yourself that you wish to express, and to have the tools to do that. It’s perhaps no surprise to many of you that I think those tools are to be found in the library. Storytime. Children being read to. Children reading out loud. Parents picking books off shelves; children eating the corners of the board books; words and language and story being thick in the air. It’s important as a write to know your voice. It’s also important to be able to listen and discover your voice in the first place.
I was thinking about that today when I read this article about Lauren Child and Oscar’s Book Prize. She argues that “we need to talk about children’s books in a grown-up way” and that “We know that a child’s life can be changed by what they read, so why don’t we spend more time thinking about what that material is?” . As somebody who does this on a daily basis, I found this an interesting piece (she says carefully). I do grant that in doing what I do, I am in a fairly select minority. But then, I’m not the only person who thinks about books in a ‘grown up way’. Every adult does it when they pick up a book, or when they go to the library with their kids. I suspect what Child means here is instead a more theoretical exploration of the themes and meanings of a text. A more mature reading, but certainly not one to characterise as ‘grown-up’. It reminded me of a recent post on a mailing list I subscribe to where the writer said they look towards Amazon reviews of children’s books because they are written by adults – and thus able to recognise ‘good’ literature. Goodreads, free to anybody, was discounted. Another individual rightfully pointed out that adults don’t have a privilege on good literary taste. I, in the background, quietly died.
I also noticed a tweet the other day from a journalist asking for academics to write about their ‘low’ cultural interests for an article. I thoroughly enjoy ANTM and I’ll not say no to watching some WWE. I’ll also theorise the world out of them if needs be. (My beloved Barthes, for examples, has this on the topic of wrestling). It will be interesting to see in what shape the article comes to be – indeed, if it comes to be at all.
(A brief sidebar: I would give my metaphorical right hand for a university to have an open day, for example, where anybody could go and attend a lecture. Anybody. Anything on that day, free of charge. An open door. An open world. Free parking. God, let’s go wild, even free childcare.)
Writing for children isn’t hard. Anybody can do it, but not many people can do it well. I ask my students to go to the library because that’s where the knowledge lies. And it’s not just in books, or noise, or those encounters between page and person. It’s in the silence.
I’m asking them to listen because, in the middle of all this noise, I think it’s the first step towards being heard.