Is there a difference between writing for children as opposed to writing for adults? In a radio interview the late Rumer Godden (author of, amongst many other books, Black Narcissus for adults and The Diddakoi for children) described how she wrote a children’s book between every adult novel ‘because of the discipline’. She continued: ‘People write letters to me and say, “I thought I’d start with something easy, such as writing a children’s book.” But it’s the most difficult form of writing next to poetry. And the younger the child the more difficult it is. You’ve got to hold them every moment. You have got to choose your words. Not basic English or anything like that but you choose words that convey and add to the few words you have, because you have very much fewer words. And also, you can’t have a lot of description. Very boring, description.’
How do other ‘adult’ writers who also write for children perceive the differences? BfK explores.
After six adult novels, I decided I was old enough to write a book for children. Although I reckoned I would have to make some adjustments – a faster moving story for one thing – it never occurred to me that my material need be very different. In The Secret Passage, a mother dies in the first chapter, a distraught father disappears and the children of this unfortunate couple go to live with a stingy aunt and a madwoman. The manuscript was turned down by every children’s publisher in London as being unsuitable for children. I assumed writing for them must be a specialist occupation.
Then Livia Gollancz, who was starting a children’s list, bought the book and did well with it. Encouraged, I went on; writing an adult novel one year, a children’s book the next, and sometimes the theme of the adult novel seemed to continue in the children’s story and vice versa. The neglected child in Squib became the battered child in Anna Apparent, and then the evacuee in Carrie’s War.
When I began Carrie’s War I intended it for grown-ups. It wasn’t until I was writing the first chapter that I realised this was really a story for children the age I had been in the war. In much the same way, an adult novel, Devil by the Sea, started off as a children’s story but ended up as a thriller for grown-ups because although it was about children, it needed to be seen through an adult eye for best effect. The theme, of betrayal and loss, is suitable for all ages; the way the tale was told depended on whose eyes I was looking through. Children inhabit the same world as adults, but they experience it differently. And so, for me, the main difference between writing for them and writing for adults is the point of view I am looking from.
Nina Bawden’s latest book for adults is A Nice Change (Virago) and for children, Off the Road (Hamish Hamilton).
Lynne Reid Banks
When I started writing for young readers, I mixed it up with writing for adults. I used it as an escape, sometimes interrupting a difficult or long adult project to write a children’s novel. But I regarded myself basically as an adult novelist. However, since 1985 I have concentrated on writing for children, with just one adult novel in all those years. So I would have to say, I think ultimately one does one or the other. A children’s book is not, after all, something one tosses off (excuse the expression) between ‘more serious’ work. Arguably it is the more serious undertaking in terms of its influence.
Children’s books leave a mark on the memory and perhaps on the development of a person that the vast majority of adult novels don’t, so the responsibility is greater. Nevertheless, children’s novels are shorter. They make stringent demands, but they don’t oblige the author to dredge up the very stuff of her soul and her life and lay it on the line The satisfactions of each genre are quite different. Children’s writing can bring with it a lot of fun and pleasure away from the desk – school and bookshop visits, trips abroad, etc. Most people don’t regard children’s writing as nearly as important as writing for adults, it doesn’t attract much attention, and that is something the children’s writer has to come to terms with. One only feels fully valued among other children’s writers, or educators. It’s adult writing that gives status among one’s peers.
And perhaps – dare I say this? – that’s just. I can’t deny that on the whole, I have chosen the easier road. I’m proud of my children’s books. They have done well for me, and probably spared me a lot of pain. But they have not necessarily fulfilled my full potential.
Lynne Reid Banks’ latest book for adults is Fair Exchange (Piatcus). Her latest book for children is Harry the Poisonous Centipede’s Big Adventure (Collins Children’s Books).
I don’t really feel there is a difference between writing for children or for adults. I agree with W. H. Auden who once said that ‘while there are some good poems that are only for adults, because they presuppose adult experience in their readers, there are no good poems which are only for children.’ Auden said this in an essay about Walter de la Mare (one of the very best children’s poets) who, himself, said that ‘nothing but the rarest kind of best in anything is good enough for children.’ When I write ‘for children’, I am writing out of my own experience as a child, recreating the fears, fun, openness to the world, of a child. For example, my poem ‘First Snow’ first appeared in a book ‘for adults’ but was reprinted in a ‘children’s collection’, The Mad Parrot’s Countdown. Of course, the subjects of many of my poems would mean little to a child, but that does not mean that I preferred writing them.
John Mole’s latest book for adults is For the Moment (Peterloo Poets). His latest book for children is The Dummy’s Dilemma and Other Poems. (Hodder).
Jill Paton Walsh
The question what difference it makes to be writing for children, compared to writing for adults is a difficult one because the differences are unconscious, more a matter of instinct. The decision as to which kind of book one is writing is made first of all, and feels simply like a sense of appropriateness. A subject lies in that large area of human experience that is shared by children and adults; a story has occurred to one which describes the subject in a simple trajectory – then this is for a young audience.
Of course there are then implications. Working for a young audience one cuts at a different angle and depth, and the narrative has to face forwards; long retrospect, nostalgia, deep regrets are not perhaps appropriate, although having said that I concede at once that making clear that actions have consequences, some of them very long-lasting, is a necessary honesty.
If I had to sum up the difference, I would say that a story for young readers is a moral map made for someone who is about to make a journey; writing for adults is more like discussing a journey with someone who has already made it, at least in part.
The perfect book for children would have poetic qualities; it would be concise, subtle, oblique and clear.
And it does undoubtedly get harder as the writer gets older; to remember youth without a golden glow, which is a distorting light. In youth, as I remember it, hope and faith came naturally, and charity was the hardest virtue, whereas in adult life faith and hope have become hard, and charity easier.
Of course a young reader could benefit greatly by sharing the maturer vision of an adult writer, but that is likely to happen only if the writer can still share the perspective of youth, can still see in the light of morning.
Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels (Black Swan) was shortlisted for the Booker and is now an A-level set text. Her latest book for adults is A Desert in Bohemia (Doubleday) and for children, Thomas and the Tinners (Macdonald).
A long time ago, when I was a child, I was told a story which lodged in my mind for more than thirty years before I wrote it down. It was about my great-great-grandfather, or perhaps my great-great-great-grandfather. To prevent his wife and daughters going to church, he would collect up their clothes on Saturday night, put them under his mattress, and sleep deep into Sunday morning so that they could not leave the house.
Suddenly I wanted to retell the story, but not as something that happened long ago, and had no connection with today. I imagined a child listening to the story. She was listening hungrily, because this story held something she needed to know. But why did she need to know it so badly? I kept thinking about this little girl, whose name became Rosa.
Rosa was locked into a stifling ‘best-friendship’ with another girl, Charmaine, who dominated her and often behaved unkindly towards her. I decided that it would be Rosa’s great-grandmother who would tell her the story of the hidden clothes, and the father lying on the mattress. But things would change a little. Great-grandma would tell of how she had been a young girl, longing to go to a dance in the village, wearing the dress her mother had made her. The father forbade it, and stuffed the dancing dress under his mattress. But in the end Great-grandma and her mother overcame their fear of the father’s domination, and pulled out the dress while he snored. Great-grandma went to the dance, and Rosa, listening to her story, learned something about courage and resistance.
I think this could have been a story for adults, though it would have been written very differently. But it would have lost the vital possibility that a child, reading it, might feel the same flash of recognition as Rosa did.
The story described above was published as Great-grandma’s Dancing Dress (Cambridge Reading, 0 521 63744 9). Helen Dunmore’s latest book for adults is Ice Cream (Viking) and for children, Zillah & Me (Scholastic Press).