With Humility and Insight: The Responsibility of Writing for Children

There is something in a story known as “the voice.” In times past, the voice of a story meant its narrative tone—its cadence, inflections, and rhythm. A story’s voice was a subtle permeating thing, created wholly by authenticity.

Today, however, the voice often becomes The Voice. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with heightened voice. The Catcher in the Rye had voice in spades, but it also had more. Holden Caulfield’s sardonic and lonely narration worked in service to the story; it did not, like an understudy hogging the spotlight, take over.

Jason Epstein, in “Book Business,” outlines how publishing houses went from privately owned companies with backlists that supported editor/ author relationships and their shared passions for good writing, to being owned by conglomerates whose stockholders expected a profit. With today’s publishing industry’s disconnect from the creativity of books and their dependence instead on books as commodities, is it any wonder that a successful trend, that of the heightened voice, would not be exploited to its full extent for maximum profitability?

This collision of creativity and commodification is nothing new; as a matter of fact, commodification is pretty much the end product of any (commercially) successful creative endeavor. But what’s different, or rather, what should make a difference, is that this creation is for children.

Writing for children is a responsibility. The vast majority of children’s book authors are adults and adults are the stewards of children. In an article published in The Horn Book, John Green wrote, “I think books must do something more than just divert attention in order to be successful. And this brings us to morality…[w]hat we need, and what good stories provide, are better Encouragements.” (The Horn Book Magazine November/December 2014)

Writing books read by children is to inform a potential. Books influence children. Like making cuneiform marks on a soft clay tablet, a story impresses onto them. We all remember paths taken and inspirations initiated by what we read as children. Adults who write for children need to approach their task with the respect due the audience. Katherine Paterson wrote “we fail our children if all we give them are the platitudes, the clichés, the slogans of our society, which we throw out whole, to keep from having to think or feel deeply.” (A Sense of Wonder)

Responsible parents don’t feed their children dessert all the time just because the kids like it better than protein and veggies. They make them eat properly, because it’s good for their physical heath, and instills in them eating habits that will create healthy adults. So why would we undercut our children’s emotional and intellectual health by feeding them books that deliver entertainment only? Pushing these under the guise of “giving them what they want (dessert) because at least they’re reading” is lazy thinking and it sidesteps an inconvenient truth. Which is that adults make money from books for children. There’s a very fine line here between providing a service and exploitation.

Books for children should lead, inspire, challenge, and teach as well as entertain. “Moral” and “didactic” have become anathema in today’s world of children’s books. It was not always so. Nineteenth century children’s schoolbooks like Sheldon’s Modern Reader are filled with stories whose purpose was to deliver the mores and morals of the society into which the children were being educated. They taught patience, kindness, diligence and truthfulness. Their stories gave the children boundaries within which to live—a more illuminated meaning of “didactic.” Joseph Campbell has said that societies, to be viable, need to pass along their myths, which is another way of saying they need to teach the limitations that create freedom. Katherine Paterson explains this concept with her usual clarity and succinctness, “[f]reedom is quite different from the lack of limitations.” She says that it was the demands of her family that “were the very boundaries that gave form to my life.” (A Sense of Wonder)

Books for children and young adults ought to deliver a sense of purpose, of Encouragement (to borrow John Green’s capitalization), of inspiration, and yes, they should teach limits, so the poor child has a leg up on knowing those and can move right along to creating freedoms.

It is not enough to only entertain a child’s developing mind, just as dessert is not enough to sustain a child’s developing body. We know this because we’re the grownups; we’re the stewards.