Uncategorized | March 07, 2012

Recent trailers for the animated film The Secret World of Arriety based on the children’s novel The Borrowers reminded me of another series I read as a child, The Littles. The entirely unappealing and disturbing concept of both of these books is that I may be the biggest threat in a reality where small, proportionate humans survive on my crumbs. I do not want to read a book or watch a movie that makes me wonder if a tiny family has run off with a turkey leg. If I drop a pea, could I hurt one? I would feel responsible, but I also don’t really want them living here. I donated the series over Thanksgiving break (I had a hard time forgetting this cover over dinner) and was surprised by the discrepancy between my childhood and adult feelings for the books. I had sought out and read the entire Little’s series at some point in my life, but could now barely stand the sight of a cover.

I spent last weekend at AWP with a Hilton hotel full of adults, where adult is synonymous with professional, successful, tall or married. I didn’t feel like I was going to be crushed by a pea, but the distinction between feeling big and small was on my mind. The conference was open and welcoming despite my intimidation. There is though a level of cynicism, elitism and doubt that acts as a rite of passage to feeling big that does not only apply to writers or artists, but to adults. It is a made-up pressure that I have put on myself in situations like AWP to separate myself from the naiveté of smallness. It is the pressure that makes me nod along when fellow writers claim that children’s and young adult literature have no merit and it is probably the same pressure that convinces them to make such claims in the first place. More often than not, I think these generalizations are meant for Stephenie Meyer, but their broadness reaches Lois Lowry, Maurice Sendak, Ezra Jack Keats, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and all of the littles checking out books.

The purpose of children’s literature to me was to prepare a young generation that will one day grow big and read real literature. My stance has changed and I know that it began when my high school French teacher assigned Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The Little Prince is marketed as a children’s book, but the themes are about bigness and smallness. Our French class spent a semester on what is still one of the most in-depth book analyses I have ever taken part in discussing adulthood, innocence and human worth. It is a book about being small and having merit.

Writing literature for children is a daunting task that I will probably never face as a writer. Knowing your audience, understanding the nuances of literature and believing in imagination are essential for holding the attention of children, but not necessarily for writing a novel that becomes a good book club read.  The challenge for an adult writing children’s literature has to be remembering that they are writing for an audience who still believes in original ideas. Writing children’s or young adult literature seems like the smallest, most confining space, but not in a claustrophobic way. I can combat the land mines of an intellectual adult mind because education and adulthood have prepared me to question, but in a systematic way. Navigating a child’s mind is like squeezing through a maze that is constantly being built and redirected with “why?” and “how?” in the places that adults don’t know to ask.

Even Saint-Exupéry’s seemingly simple sentences need unraveling: “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” I take my steps a little bit more carefully and can combat the pressures of intimidation if I remember that I might be living with French royalty.