Sunday, September 09, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle on Writing for Children

There is nothing that annoys me more than how little respect people have for children's media. I will meet someone at a cocktail party, and when they ask me what I do, and I reply, "I'm a television producer." That always elicits a bright, engaged reaction, "REALLY? What do you produce?"

When I say I make television for kids and teens, the response is a dull "Oh." End of conversation. As if great story-making for kids is any easier than it is for adults, especially because the budgets are exponentially smaller! I am proud of my craft and resent the assumption that because I try to change the world for kids with meaningful media, I'm somehow not "in the game."

The brilliant writer Madeleine L'Engle wrote books for both audiences. Her adult books, both prose and poetry, explore issues of faith and spirituality. I have been thinking about her work all day, and tonight I pulled one of her books, WALKING ON WATER: REFLECTIONS ON FAITH AND ART, from the shelf. It has a wonderful passage about this topic.

One summer I taught a class in Techniques of Fiction at a midwestern university. About half way through the course, one of the students came up to me after class and said, "I do hope you're going to teach us something about writing for children. That's really why I'm taking this course."
"What have I been teaching you?"
"Well - writing."
"Don't you write when you write for children?"
"Well - but isn't it different?"

No, it is not different. The techniques of fiction are the techniques of fiction. They hold as true for Beatrix Potter as they do for Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Characterization, style, and theme are as important in a children's book as in a novel for grown-ups. Taste, as always, will differ (spinach vs. beets). A child is not likely to identify with the characters in Faulkner's "Sanctuary." Books like "A Wrinkle in Time" may seem to difficult to some parents. But if a book is not good enough for a grown-up, it is not good enough for a child.

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