Post Road Magazine #22

Why I Write for Children

Carolyn Coman (with an assist from Rob Shepperson)

Being asked why I write for children feels a bit like being asked when I stopped beating my wife (or, in my case, husband).

Because I don't, I never did — write for children. What I do is answer to the material that calls to me and more often than not that material has a child at its center. My tendency is to relate what is happening from a child's perspective (or a perspective a child might appreciate) and doing so lands me in the territory of "writing for children" — perhaps the only genre that must bear the weight of its audience in its very name.

Both the question and the genre name presuppose that audience determines content and form, when really, at least for me, it's the other way around: what I write about determines how and for whom my books are published and marketed. Certainly children's book publishing and marketing affect how my books are put out and received in the world, and certainly adults and children are drawn to different stories, but those realities are to the side and after-the-fact of what I do and why I do it. What I do is write.

So let me tweak the question a bit: why do I write about what I write about — the consciousness and made-up lives and adventures of certain children?

I didn't set out to, consciously (and I find that's usually a pretty trustworthy way to start). It came as news to me that the first novel I wrote — about a twelve year old girl coming to terms with the loss of her mother, told by a third person narrator who stays close and true to the protagonist and her twelve year old heart — was "young adult." (The agent I submitted it to told me so, in horror, adding I could "kiss my career goodbye" if I went that route. The editor I sent it to at Farrar Straus and Giroux accepted it with glee.) The next novel I wrote stayed true to a little boy scared to death by an act of domestic violence, and the one after that settled in with a thirteen year old girl deeply lost in the woods of an incestuous relationship; the one after that, set in South Africa, tracks an angry teenager's ragged path to reconciliation with her father. . . such were the characters and thematic content that called to me. I may not have consciously set out to write children's books, but left to my own devices and inclinations that's exactly what I found myself doing, time and time again.

My editor and publisher, Stephen Roxburgh, summed it up best when he observed that I am more interested in discovery than recognition. Yes: first love, first awareness, first killing loss, first mortal wound, first forgiveness, first tectonic shift of consciousness…the kinds of discoveries which are so much the stuff of youth, and which inevitably lead me to the lives and hearts and minds of children. You could say, I suppose, that I'm drawn to the same thematic material as many of my brother and sister writers of adult fiction, only I prefer my material enacted as opposed to reenacted, experienced rather than reconsidered, analyzed, or interpreted through adult retrospection.

Although I live in the adult world and read and am nurtured by adult books, when it comes to what I want to look into and live with, creatively, I gravitate toward the awakening consciousness, savor the connections children make more than the connections adult do. I am more often delighted by and interested in writing the lives of children. Let's face it: we adults are just not as fresh.

I'm also constitutionally drawn to distilling things down. Nothought-unexpressed doesn't really cut it in our genre. In my effort to get to the bottom of things, I try to distill what I'm looking at — not reduce or diminish it — down to its essence, both in terms of language and content, and doing that inevitably leads me to a story simple enough for a child to read. Oscar Wilde said that his fairy tales were intended for "those who have kept the child-like faculties of wonder and joy, and who find in simplicity a subtle strangeness."

Twenty-five years later, I am still thoroughly engaged in the genre I entered unconsciously many years ago. Why is that? I am still finding ways to run with it and try new things, still finding room to maneuver and grow. I've written dark, serious, character-driven stories and funny plotdriven over-the-top romps. Recently artist Rob Shepperson and I co-created our first graphic storybook, The Memory Bank. True collaboration with an artist has opened another dimension of possibility to the work and ushered me deeper into my imagination than I'd previously been able to go. Our next story takes us into the dangling-wires consciousness of a barely verbal child on the cusp of becoming a sibling. I seem to be dropping down in age rather than reaching up as far as my material goes — in search, perhaps, of wilder frontiers.

Are there consequences to writing for children? Sure, there are consequences to everything. Think of Peter Rabbit, who ended up with chamomile tea while his sisters got to have milk and blackberries. We make our bed and then we have to lie in it. Luckily, I love my bed.

Yes, my grown son always makes air quotes around "book" when he asks what I'm working on. And people occasionally say goofy things to me in response to hearing that I write for children — my personal favorite, said with a little squeal: "Oh, FUN!!!" An adult short story writer thought he was complimenting me after a reading when he exclaimed, "Hey, you do what we do!" The truth is that the age of our audience neither makes child's play of the work of writing nor lowers the bar in terms of structuring, plotting, burrowing into character, shaping the satisfying line.

Irritation and defensiveness aside, writing children's books has allowed me to work and teach with a terrific bunch of colleagues at both Vermont College and Hamline University MFA programs — wonderful writers and funny, smart, kind people who are dedicated teachers as well, remarkably un-egotistical.

Within this genre I write the stories I most deeply want to write, in varied and wide-ranging forms, and I reach young readers around the world with them — and perhaps some not-so-young readers, too. I believe this is called a happy ending.

Ultimately, though, these consequences and any others I can think of are just that: other. As is the genre to which something is ascribed. All that really matters is what we write, the story itself.

I mentioned to my collaborator, Rob Shepperson, that I was working on this piece, trying to answer the question Why I Write for Children, and he sent back his own response.

Enough said.

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