Tuesday

Where the Real Books Are

Whenever I explain to people what I'm pursing a masters in or what genre I edit, I inevitably get the question, "Why? Why do you do kids' books when you could be working on real ones?" Well, since I know they don't think I'm producing imaginary books, I assume they want to know why I prefer children's books over adult.

I'd like to start by saying that I like adult literature. There are plenty of great adult authors like Jasper Fforde or Agatha Christie. I can appreciate classics like Jane Austen or Chaucer. I'll read Mallory's Morte d'Arthur in the original Middle English. For fun. But whenever I go into a bookstore it's not the adult section I head for. It's the kids.

So that leads us back to the original question: Why do I prefer kid's books? For me it's simple. Kids books move. They flow. They stay on track and don't lose focus. That doesn't mean they can't have subplots or consist of complex narratives. Diana Wynne Jones writes some of the most complicated books in any type of fiction -- adult or child. Archer's Goon is a structuralist's dream while Fire & Hemlock is thematically masterful. The difference though is that children's books have tight writing. The author does not deviate onto a barely relevant tangent. Despite the trend toward longer books, children's authors are still limited to shorter word counts than adult authors. There is a greater incentive in a children's book to make every word matter.

And children's books can be a huge challenge. It's hard to make a 2000 word picture book have the same emotional impact on its reader as a much longer work like War and Peace. But the best picture books do impact their readers and cause emotional reactions. No one can truly read all of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day without feeling even the tiniest bit sorry for Alexander. Then there are Easy Readers, which are the hardest books for any age to write. If you ever feel the need to frustrate yourself beyond belief, take a first grade word list and try to write a compelling 800 word story with action and character growth. The people that can do this are true geniuses. And those of us editing them can be a bit of a miracle worker too, if I do say so myself.

Children's books are no longer the red-headed stepchildren of literature. Compelling academic research has been done on the genre bringing it into the mainstream tenure-tracked disciplines. And despite your personal views on Harry Potter, his books spent so much time at the top of the NYT Bestsellers list that the adult works couldn't even compete.

So, the next time an adult author or editor wants to know when I'm going to start working on "real" books, I won't feel slighted. I'll condescendingly ask, "When are you going to?"

As always, leave your thoughts and comments on kiddie lit in the comments section. Use the link below.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Buried Editor,

You know, the more I read and write children's books, the more I totally appreciate exactly what you are saying in this entry. Seeing how carefully planned out every detail is in the books is mind boggling to say the least. But this is truly something that never entered my mind in the past.

Anonymous said...

When my mother tells people I write, she's somewhat apologetic, offering a chuckle with her "but it's just for kids." At first it made me nuts, but having stuggled with the genre and realizing the difficulty and complexity of it I can now smile wisely back knowing that she and hundreds like her are merely ignorant and uninformed.We can change that. I love my mom.

MotherReader said...

Found your blog through Big A, little a. Very interesting and helpful for writers and potential writers. Esp. like the glossary to the side. Can I ask what "accepting queries" means in the book publishing word? I mean, I understand that query is a question, but there seems to be more involved here. Anyway, great blog.

Jen Robinson said...

As a long-time adult reader of children's books, I found this post particularly validating. The thing that I like about children's books is that the characters in the books usually take action. There are a lot of adult books that meander on, and have people spend a lot of time thinking about what to do, or the implications of long-age decision. In kid's books, the main character almost always takes action, rescues him or herself, and so on. Thanks for a great post, and a great site. I was also referred by Kelly at Big A little a.

Nick said...

Children's books (we may as well call them that) have one great advantage over Adult books (I reluctantly call them that, even though they include The D V Code). This advantage is as follows...

Children's books are mistakenly treated as a genre of their own. Which means, happily, that they are not subdivided into genres. They are the only section of the bookshop, therefore, where you can find a fantasy next to a war story next to a race story next to historical romance, and so on and so forth.

I just love that. It's how literature should be.

Gem said...

So right. I have long loved Children's fiction, and whenever I mention this most folk think I'm a little weird. I did a Creative Writing degree and for my final writing project, wrote children's fantasy - my supervisor was a bit lost I think...
I like your take on it, nick - the children's section is a world of its own, where anything is possible...

Bryce said...

Arnold Lobel is syllable-for-syllable the best author I have ever read. I'm always amazed at how much depth he can write into his characters with such a small vocabulary.

Anonymous said...

I heartily agree. I read many children's books as a librarian, and it is true that they are very well edited and tightly constructed. When I pick up a (well reviewed) adult book, I feel like like throwing it aside after a page or two. The writing is just not of the same caliber, and this is true of fiction and nonfiction.