Child Reader, Adult Author: Talking to Kids Through Story

In the past two days, I’ve read two takes on the creator/audience relationship when it comes to children’s books from two very different sources. The first is from Leonard Marcus’s introduction to Ways of Telling: Fourteen Interviews with the Masters of the Art of the Picture Bookhis book Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book. Marcus describes the picture book not only as a dialogue between words and pictures but also, “a dialogue between generations: between the artists and writers who create the and the children who compose their primary audience.”

The second is an interview with Dav Pilkey on NPR (the complete interview is here).

It was this bit of the article/interview that struck me the most:

 In the new Captain Underpants book, he writes: “If you’re like most kids you’re probably reading this book because some adult wanted you to stop playing video games or watching Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-BoxersTV.” Pilkey says that when he writes for kids, “it’s really an ‘us and them’ type of situation. It’s like me and the kids versus the grown-ups.”

Once I got shook of the bristling-type feeling I got from the “us and them” language Pilkey used, I realized while they’re clearly expressing themselves quite differently, in essence, both Leonard Marcus and Dav Pilkey are saying the same thing. And they got me thinking about the nature of writing for a young audience when you are, inevitably, a grown-up. I’ve always rejected the idea that you need to have children yourself in order to really write for kids. Equally absurd to me is the idea that the people who write for children somehow still are children themselves. Was Maurice Sendak really just an overgrown child a heart? Why would we even want him to be?

Maybe all you really need is to strive to create this dialogue between the grown-up creator and the child. Reading books with my daughter that have sly adult references always get my goat. Picture books—and even early readers, chapter books, and beyond—aren’t really for adults. They’re for and about the young readers.

There are so many ways to write for young children and create a dialogue with young readers. You can do it through loving, comforting stories. And you can do it through telling a really awesome fart joke. My approach to writing is much, much different from Dav Pilkey’s. But I completely appreciate the sense of empowerment kids can get knowing that the author of a favorite book is on their side, writing for just them, parents be damned. It’s why the Captain Underpants books are so well loved. It’s the dialogue every writer for children, in myriad different ways, is trying to create.

And anyway, who doesn’t love a good fart joke?