AUTHORS AND CRITICS ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WRITING FOR ADULTS AND CHILDREN
“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” the great Maurice Sendak once said in an interview. “I don’t write for children,” he told Colbert. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” This sentiment — the idea that designating certain types of literature as “children’s” is a choice entirely arbitrary and entirely made by adults — has since been eloquently echoed by Neil Gaiman, but isn’t, in fact, a new idea.
On Level Of Detail
It’s like a runner who’s used to doing sprints and then decides to do a marathon. When I write for kids it has to be kind of believable, but they also have to know it’s a fantasy. But when you write horror for adults, every detail has to be real. I actually had to do research on things like vegetation on the Outer Banks.
– R.L. Stine, from an interview with Businessweek.
On Thematic Material
There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction: they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.
Children … have the same emotions … They may be not as complex … but as primary colours, fear is fear, happiness is happiness, and love is the same sense for a child as it is for any other.
Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did.
— Ray Bradbury, explaining how these writers write ‘in metaphors’, just like he does, and that’s why their work is popular in schools.
Different Life Experience
When you are writing for children, there are no cultural modifiers. No icons that you can quickly draw on for reference. You can only deal with the core emotions as that is what they recognise.
The firmness of the setup must be adjusted to the target audience. We set up more prominently for youth audiences, because they’re not as story literate as middle-aged filmgoers. Bergman, for example, is difficult for the young–not because they couldn’t grasp his ideas if they were explained, but because Bergman never explains. He dramatizes his ideas subtly, using setups intended for the well-educated, socially experienced, and psychologically sophisticated.
– Robert McKee, Story
Refusal To Accept There Is Any Inherent Difference
I don’t see a clear difference between writing for children and writing for adults. It’s just that when I write for children, I’m writing for everyone; when I write for adults, I’m only writing for some people. In everything I write, I try to be ‘brief, clear, and rich’, to quote Andersen. The question ‘What is true?’ is fundamental to my life…I think of world literature as both shared and indivisible. Children’s literature is also world literature. All literature involves sharing and reciprocity, giving and receiving gifts. All works, whether they are written for children or adults, in whatever language and country, form one and same world literature, in which all works exist in relation to each other. Completely autonomous works don’t exist, and every book has many authors, both dead and alive. Literature is intellectual capital that is not used up or diminished through distribution.
I myself would hope that in my books there is no separation between comedy for children and comedy for adults. There’s just good comedy, humour in fact, because that’s a language that can speak to people of many different ages at the same time. I don’t fret over whether children can understand everything in my books. Perhaps the best situation is when they end up asking their parents and each other questions now and then – and hey presto, a literary discussion ensues.
A Musical Metaphor
The craft is the same whether I’m writing children’s books or crime novels. Maybe if writing a book in the Harry Hole series, a crime novel, it may feel like conducting a symphony orchestra. Writing a children’s book is like jamming with your band. It’s more direct, but it doesn’t mean it’s easier, or less demanding. It is more enjoyable.
– Jo Nesbø
Difference In Audience Criticism
Literature for children and young people finds itself wrestling with the pressures of conflicting expectations: adults think a book is a good one if they themselves genuinely enjoy it, although children often have a much more uncomplicated, hands-on relationship to reading.
Difference In Subject Matter And Humour
To be honest, I don’t think I change style, genre, concepts, no matter what audiences I’m writing for. There are some subjects children probably aren’t going to be interested in: The complexities of adult relationships. There are things like farts that probably very few adults want to read about. But by and large, all my books can be read from anyone from three to adult, and I suspect they are. Just about all my work is really not age specific. I do get annoyed when people advocate limiting language for children. That’s how children learn. Language. If a book is good enough a child needs only understand four words in six and they will keep on reading. And when they come across those words another three or four times they’ll know what they mean. That is how we acquire language and concepts and so often we totally underestimate kids. Kids are often more interested in the big questions: The good and the evil and how can we change the world. Adults will often read a book because it [conforms to] their image of being intellectual. They will be more preoccupied with how you pay the mortgage and is there going to be a train strike tomorrow. But the job of a kid is to understand the world. They are deeply, desperately interested in how the world works, why, and what is good and what is evil far more often than adults. For a writer writing about good and evil, you’ve probably got a very small readership. If you are doing that for kids you have got probably everyone out there, who is passionately in what is good, what is evil and where they meet. Don’t be cute. Don’t underestimate [kids]. Don’t write down. Forget about the books that you loved as a child; always remember though who you are writing for. Don’t think of a child as being a different species. Don’t equate the words that a child is able to read with what the child is able to understand. No adult ever says to a kid ‘Don’t watch that TV show because you won’t understand it’. We say ‘No, don’t watch that TV show’ because we know they are going to understand it!
– Jackie French, Australian Writers’ Centre Podcast (episode 25/10/2013)
Difference In Plot Shape
Contemporary YA novels and even novels for younger readers often come very close to adult fiction, both in their general pessimistic worldview and their complex narrative strategies. However, we can still distinguish a children’s novel from an adult novel by its unaccomplished rite of passage and its possibility of return to circularity, if only through death.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
For more on plot shapes, some of which are more prevalent in children’s literature, see Shapes Of Plots In Children’s Literature.
Difference In Relationship With The Author
A child walks into a library asking for Wimpy Kid or Artemis Fowl, not Jeff Kinney or Eoin Colfer. However, every now and then a child reader will take an interest in their favourite author and these days will be able to find information about them on the net.