L’Engle on writing for children
Because her A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal, L’Engle became known primarily as a Christian children’s writer. She despised the pigeonhole because “the implication is that I am to be read only by children, and Christian children at that,” as though a book a child will enjoy can offer nothing to an adult. Her objection to this way of thinking is partly the inherent lack of respect for children:
Added to the assumption that if you don’t have enough talent to write for adults, you might try writing a book for children, is the further insult that if you really work hard and discover that you have more talent than you thought you had, you might advance enough to write a book for adults.
If you are not good enough to write a book for adults, you are certainly not good enough to write a book for children.
(Her complaint is reminiscent of Wess Stafford’s question in his Too Small to Ignore—which I reviewed here—about why churches hire trained specialists to teach theology to adults, but qualifications for Sunday School teachers are limited to “a heart for kids” and enough mobility to chase down a wayward one with scissors.)
What then, in her opinion, constitutes a children’s book? L’Engle defines a children’s book as “any book a child will read.” In other words, a much larger world of story in which children can explore and from which they can learn exists outside of the seating area designated by the giant Winnie-the-Pooh cutout at Barnes & Noble. When she was a kid, L’Engle first read all the books on her bookshelf and then, discovering her appetite went beyond that finite supply, turned to those on her parents’ shelves. I recall doing the same.
The question of what children are looking for in all of these books is the focus of a relatively lengthy discussion in chapter 7; her comments are worth highlighting here:
All [children] require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer the protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist.
A child wants to read about another child, a child living in and having adventures in a world which can be recognized and accepted. As long as what the protagonist does is true, this world can be unlimited, for a child can identify with a hero in ancient Britain, darkest Africa, or the year two thousand and ninety-three.
In a book which is going to be marketed for children it is usually better to write within the child’s frame of reference, but there is no subject which should, in itself, be taboo. If it is essential for the development of the child protagonist, there is nothing which may not be included. It is how it is included which makes its presence permissible or impermissible.
Children don’t like antiheroes. Neither do I… I need to be able to admire the protagonist despite his faults and so be given a glimpse of my own potential….We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.
A child is not afraid of new ideas, does not have to worry about the status quo or rocking the boat, is willing to sail into uncharted waters….[The initial rejection of A Wrinkle in Time by numerous editors] is the typical underestimation of the adult as to the capacity of children to understand philosophical, scientific, and theological concepts. But there is no idea that is too difficult for children as long as it underlies a good story and quality writing.
So, again, what is a children’s book? She sums it up this way: “A children’s book must be, first and foremost, a good book, a book with a young protagonist with whom the reader can identify, and a book which says yes to life.”
Standards to make this “Christian children’s writer” tremble! But her wise discussion can, I think, be boiled down to one principle: respect the reader. Every reader. Because “writing is writing, whether the story is for the chronologically young or old.”