I recently finished a book-length manuscript, a children's adventure story aimed at the fifth-to-sixth-grade reading level. It involves two cousins, one American and the other Icelandic, who are entrusted with the delivery of two ponies to another part of Iceland. Along the way they quarrel, reconcile, overcome challenges, etc., etc.
After editing the first draft I distributed copies to several friends who serve as reliable reader-critics. Then, on a whim, I did something that seemed on the surface to be a neat idea: I asked my 11-year-old son if he would let me read the book to him. "I want to see what you think of it," I said with a wink and a nod.
Alyosha ruminated for a moment and then assented. He would give me a slot just before bedtime. "But only one chapter a night," he admonished with index finger raised, "because I need my sleep."
Since I have cultivated a tradition of reading to and with may son, I expected him to quietly listen to my story, nod sagaciously, giggle where appropriate, and generally tell me that my work was the greatest thing ever written.
Then came the great disillusionment.
The first night, as Alyosha snuggled to a sitting position against his pillow, I took my place at the foot of his bed. "OK," I began, clearing my throat. "Iceland Summer."
As I began to read, my son called for me to stop. "What is it?" I asked, as I looked up from the story.
My son shook his head. "The title," he said. "It's no good."
I looked down at the title page and considered his comment. "But buddy," I said, "how do you know if it's not good if you haven't heard the story yet?"
Without blinking, Alyosha repeated that the title just wasn't any good. I told him I would ask him about the title again when the book was finished. He accepted this.
The first chapter introduced all of the American characters. My son generally approved of them, but he had a bone to pick with Ben, the 14-year-old boy. "Stop there," he said, bringing me to a screeching halt in the middle of a fight scene. I looked up from the manuscript and managed a sweet smile. "Yes, my son?"
Alyosha wagged his finger and clucked his tongue. "Ben doesn't talk like that," he declaimed with compelling self-assurance.
I looked at my story. "Of course he does," I said. "This sentence is what I want him to say."
"No," he said, not the least bit perturbed by my thick-headedness. "I mean, Ben shouldn't talk that way. It doesn't go with the way you described him."
I thought for a moment and realized that this was exactly the type of comment that has real value. But I felt myself becoming ever-so-slightly defensive as I tried to explain the character's language to my son.
My son, ordinarily a reluctant reader, had turned out to be a deadly critic. He listened with painfully focused attention and made pointed, no-nonsense comments. When I was done with that first chapter (45 minutes to read five pages!), I kissed him good night and left his room, feeling as if I had been peeled.
The second night - Chapter 2 - went no better. In fact, I prepared myself by re-editing the chapter before reading it to him, hoping that I could somehow improve it beyond reproach. But once again I barely intoned the first paragraph when my son soured his expression.
"Ben isn't mean enough," he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked, noting that my main character had just stolen something from another boy.
"But Ben is going to be nice in the end, isn't he?" Alyosha reasoned.
My gosh, he was right, of course. I was only on Page 10, and he had already seen clear through to Chapter 23. If Ben's eventual goodness was to shine in the end, he had to start out much more disagreeable.
I realized, at this point, that I was having trouble acknowledging my son's contributions to my writing. Was I having a problem with his criticisms because he was a child? Or was it because he was my son and I felt that family members had to be kind to one another? I swallowed my pride, affirmed the value of his comments, and skulked out of his room as he turned out the light
He spent the next night at a friend's house, and I edited my work in peace. When he returned the next day I said nothing about it. That night I tucked him into bed and made a brisk exit from his room. As I passed over the threshold he called out to me. "Aren't you forgetting something?" he sang, bristling with anticipation.
I retrieved my manuscript, assumed my position at the foot of his bed, and word-by-word we clawed our way through my story. Even as I write this, we are still at it, and will be for some time, for children know what they like and are reluctant to give it up.
If, and when, we do finish this labor, I have vowed to solicit comments only from adults in the future. For adults can be counted on to nod sagaciously, giggle where appropriate, and tell me that my stories are the greatest things ever written.
Why would a writer want to hear less?