Children’s Books, Truth, and Adultish Readers PDF Print E-mail
Written by Nathan D. Wilson   
Saturday, 13 February 2010 12:15

Adults. We are very important, and we need to read important things. Sure, a lot of us read romance novels and humor and pulp fantasy and feel-goodistic schlock, but those aren’t the important people. Important people read deep, thoughtful, ponderous, bitter, empty, foul, and incisive things—the stuff of wonderful fiction. Write without several of these key ingredients, and your work will be shelved in the section helpfully labeled “Plebe.” (Hint: it’s right behind “Inspirational.”)

But writing for kids is a different prospect, even if most of your readers are still adults. Sure, there are many authors out there who see a children’s book as an opportunity to wise some kids up to the heady ways of the adult world (issues, after all, are important, and future important people should grapple with them at a young age). These adult types want kids to face the Truth, and the Truth is hard. The world is hard and not necessarily interesting. The tension is in your head. And in how other people look at you and you look at other people. Groan. Moan. Come of age, and the veil will be lifted. Kid, you’ve seen the world now; I’ve shown it to you in this fine piece of award-winning fiction. Now you know that insurance companies are out to get you, and your sick grandmother and only you can save the wetlands. Or not. Have fun in high school.

On the other hand, the bestseller lists are crowded with kids’ books featuring dragons and vampires and dwarves and many, many comic variations on Tolkien’s creatures and characters. (To say nothing of all the happy, happy endings.) And if you push against this type of fiction for children, you’ll get some very grandmotherly defenses.

A few examples from my own pushings:

It’s important to preserve this time of innocence.

We need to water young imaginations.

What’s wrong with dreaming?

Some kids need to escape (especially when they’re getting beat up at school).

(And variations . . .)

I agree with all of this, but there’s an undercurrent to it that I dislike. The assumption is that kids don’t need/can’t handle the truth. They need some time to be happy before they discover how much the world sucks and/or how boring it really is. Lie to the kids now, and they will look back on it fondly later. (Santa anyone?)

I don’t want to lie to kids. Ever. I don’t want to lull them to sleep before the real world wakes them up with a head slap and a wet-willy in the ear sometime during adolescence. I like the hard-nosed commitment to Truth and The Real that I see in some of my issues-driven colleagues. And I like the joy and the happiness and the thrill that is woven into the work of many others.

The two belong together.

I write kids’ books because I can tell the Truth, and the Truth is that The Real is throbbingly fantastic. Ask the nearest grasshopper or rodent or turtle. Ask the nearest star (but show some respect and don’t look directly at her—she’s powerful enough to peal your nose and blind your eyes). I want to paint a picture of this world that is accurate (if impressionistic), and I don’t want a single young reader to grow up and look back on me as the peddler of sweet youthful falsehoods. I want them to get a world vision that can grow and mature and age with them until, like all exoskeletons, it must be cast aside—not as false, but as a shallow introduction to things even deeper and stranger and more wonderful (and involving more dragonflies).

It is because I try to write this way that I use so much darkness. Evil is more than a prop. True sacrifice is not a sleight of hand. Laughter in the face of adversity is the first step to profound joy in triumph.

I have spoken to some of my (non-fantasy-writing) literary superiors and had them express appreciation for my use of darkness—it made my story just real enough for them to like me, the saving grace of my otherwise numerous sins. On the other hand, some of my more fantasy-driven friends have expressed curiosity, and even concern, about the same thing. Should the adventures be lighter? The darkness less dense (but more slimy)? The triumph easier? The book shorter? (No, No, No, and Okay, maybe.) My brush strokes are sweeping. I don’t delve into the gritty details of evil. But I want the ratio of light to dark on my canvas to match the ratio in the world around us. Shadow is real and cold and frightening, but I see a lot more of the blazing sun.

A final point, disjointed but related. Many readers of children’s books are, in fact, adults. The line at any bookstore signing can tell me this. I don’t think it’s difficult to understand. Sure, some of the adult readers focus on children’s books for the same reasons that others focus on romance—they’ve developed a particular itch and they scratch it. But others are wandering the store (pickily) looking for flavors they remember from when they were kids, looking for their young eyes again, hoping to once more see the world how they used to. They’re looking for Mom’s apple pie and Grandma’s quilt. They’re looking for a kind of truth that's hard to find up at the adult table, but a truth nonetheless. Often they’re looking for something to fill that role for their own children. And sadly, they frequently bring along a bipedal lump of flesh or two—numbed by the flickering god—hoping I might have some mental-imaginative defibrillator tucked away in my book bag. Sometimes I do (and those are good times). Sometimes I don’t.

C.S. Lewis wrote truth for the young, and he wrote truth for the old. The weave is finer in That Hideous Strength than in Narnia, but the truth and the ingredients are the same in both. That apple pie hasn’t lost its savor, and it continues to feed me even when I’m not reading, when I’m walking beneath a row of maples or climbing a hill or slaving on a project . . . when I’m writing.

I write for kids because I like apple pie, no one asks me to lie, and I refuse to write for any but the most important people.


ND Wilson's The Chestnut King, the conclusion to his Cupboards Trilogy, is now available for purchase through Canon Press. The first book in the series, 100 Cupboards, was just named the book of the month by Al 's Book Club, on NBC's Today Show.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 13 February 2010 12:34