I don’t rant very often on Twitter, but I did recently have a wee soapbox moment, inspired by a so-called C.S. Lewis quote that was getting a lot of attention. Perhaps you’ve seen this quote: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children isn’t a good children’s story in the slightest.”
What C.S. Lewis actually wrote (from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”) was “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” (From The Misquotable C.S. Lewis: What He Didn’t Say, What He Actually Said, and Why It Matters by William O’Flaherty).
That’s pretty much the same sentiment (but sounds a lot more like C.S. Lewis!). And I disagree with it just as much. Here’s my Twitter thread, edited for flow (but not edited much):
Since I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that C.S. Lewis quote, pull up a chair, friends. This is going to be a thread on children’s fiction and the kids who read it.
There’s a pretty common belief out there that children’s literature isn’t as important, hard to write, or profound as fiction for adults. I can see that when I mention to people that I have a book out, see their faces brighten, and then see that brightness disappear when I say: “it’s a middle grade novel.” (Now, say that to me about your own work, or a favorite book, and my eyes will brighten even more!) For a lot of people, a book for kids is a lesser book than one for grownups. And embedded in that belief is a belief about kids. And a smug superiority.
Talk to just about any teacher—people who spend the majority of their waking hours with students, so true experts—and ask what they think. Remember, they’re experts. Yes, they love their students, but they can be objective about them too.
Teachers know that kids are smart. No, kids may not all ace their assessments, but they’re capable of thinking hard and deep about what matters to them. They make connections. They have deep interests. They ask questions that lay bare the foolishness of so much adult thinking. And they challenge us. So many of those challenges are good. Kids today are incredible thinkers, and it would behoove us all to listen a little bit more to them, to hear and respect their passions: video games, television, music, sports.
And to respect the books they love. We adults may not love every one of kids’ favorites. And we’ll find books we adore that kids can’t get through. (That’s okay; some kids will love them.) We adults need to look at the books that kids love that we may not like and look for the beauty, the power, the humor, or whatever makes that book special. You’ll find not only a glimpse into another world, but a connection with a kid. You may still not like that book, and that’s okay. Just understand and respect why kids do. And you’ll find your own appreciation of literature, and reading experience, blossom.
By the way, it isn’t easier to write middle grade than adult fiction. I used to write literary fiction. I never want to go back. I’ve put much more effort in Drest’s world than any of those bleak, dark worlds. And when you write for kids, you want it to be meaningful, but also fun. Sincere “fun” is harder to pull off than it may sound. And remember: Kids are smart. They can tell when you’re not being genuine. And they do not forgive insincerity easily. (Neither do I, actually.)
What books have you read thanks to a kid’s recommendation? Please leave some titles in the comments so we all can be enlightened! I’ll name two myself: Maxi’s Secrets by Lynn Plourde and A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord. I’d missed these when they came out. My son, however, hadn’t, and told me I needed to read them. So I asked him what he liked about them, and read them, and loved the heart, humor, and beauty of them both.