Last week, David Itzkoff started off a review in the NYT Book Review by observing, “I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers.” It’s a maddening lead, especially for people who write and love young adult literature. Neil Gaiman, whose novel InterWorld was one of the two YA books covered in Itzkoff’s review, responded in a puzzled way on his blog, noting, “I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don’t Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre.” And at Crooked House, Stephany also provides an eloquent response.
I like what Stephany writes so much I’d like to print it here except that wouldn’t leave me room to share this lovely, sensible thing E.B. White said in his Paris Review interview that seems apropos:
Interviewer: Is there any shifting of gears in writing such children’s books as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little? Do you write to a particular age group?
White: Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.
Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept almost without questions, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.
Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.
I read White’s interview last year — shortly after Terry mentioned his enduring affection for Stuart Little — and that part’s stayed with me.