Writing That Connects With Kids

WORLDS OF CHILDHOOD: THE ART AND CRAFT OF WRITING FOR CHILDREN, Edited by William Zinsser, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 213 pp., $8.95 paper, $19.95 cloth MUCH of the world labors under the mistaken impression that writing for children is a piece of cake. People assume that it doesn't require as much thought, talent, or effort as writing for adults - that it's merely a matter of coming up with a cute story, or penning a few brief lines and slapping together some artwork for a picture book.

But as William Zinsser, author of ``On Writing Well'' and editor of ``Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children,'' acknowledges, ``To enter and hold the mind of a child or a young person is one of the hardest of all writers' tasks.''

``Children aren't stupid,'' poet Jack Prelutsky says in this collection of talks by writers co-sponsored by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the New York Public Library. Sort of an Ogden Nash for the younger set, Prelutsky is underlining a basic premise understood by all good writers for children: You cannot condescend to your audience. In order to successfully connect with a child, whether it be through a poem, a picture book, or a novel, you must respect him or her.

Prelutsky continues (with tongue only partly in cheek), ``The main differences between children and adults are that children have had fewer experiences - because they haven't been around long enough to have as many as we have had - and they are short.''

Part of Houghton Mifflin's ``Writer's Craft'' series, ``Worlds of Childhood'' spotlights six talented writers: Jean Fritz, Maurice Sendak, Jill Krementz, Jack Prelutsky, Rosemary Wells, and Katherine Paterson, who talk about their chosen disciplines, about their own childhoods and how they came to be interested in and committed to the art of writing for children.

All the various genres that fall under the general heading ``children's literature'' - picture books, non-fiction, fiction, poetry - are represented.

Some of the information in the book comes as a surprise. Maurice Sendak, for instance, says that ``with me, everything begins with writing.'' That's quite a statement for one of the most widely respected illustrators of the 20th century.

Sendak says he's never spent less than two years on the text of each of his picture books - in most cases just 380 words - before he even allows himself to begin drawing. ``You don't want to be seduced by pictures,'' he says, ``because then you begin to write for pictures. Images come in language, language, language....''

And author-illustrator Rosemary Wells says that children's picture books - good ones - must have the kind of underlying structure found in a Bach melody or a sonnet.

Wells creates board books - those sturdy little fist-sized tomes that, as she puts it, can ``survive a certain amount of infant vandalizing.'' Her stories about a pair of rabbit siblings, the hapless Max and his bossy older sister, Ruby, are examples of just the kind of exquisitely controlled balance she advocates. Sparely written - only 16 pages, most of which contain just a few words - the books have plots and characters that are fully realized, packed with sly humor and emotional punch, and have proved popular and enduring with children and adults alike.

For many of these writers and illustrators, their work grew directly out of their own childhoods. Those who write for children often seem to have a knack for vividly recalling the situations and emotions of their early years. Sendak, for example, frequently plunders memories of his childhood for his artwork - the weird and wonderful ``Outside Over There,'' for example, contains oblique and not-so-oblique references to two major phenomena of his childhood, he says - the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the Dionne quintuplets.

Sendak also confesses that his best-known book, ``Where the Wild Things Are,'' was originally meant to be ``Where the Wild Horses Are'' - until he discovered that he couldn't draw horses. When the monsters in the story appeared on his drawing board, he recognized them instantly as visitors from his past.

``I knew right away that they were my relatives,'' he says. ``They were my uncles and aunts. It wasn't that they were monstrous people; it was simply that I didn't care for them when I was a child because they were rude, and because they ruined every Sunday, and because they ate all our food. They pinched us and poked us and said those tedious, boring things that grown-ups say....''

Two other writers whose chosen craft is a direct outgrowth of their childhood experiences - though in different ways and for different reasons - are Jean Fritz and Katherine Paterson. Both women were born in China to missionary parents.

Fritz began as a writer of fiction, but moved to biography because she was impatient with the ``waste of good material'' - fascinating factual stuff she found herself having to tone down for fiction, because no one would believe it otherwise.

Her string of award-winning and popular biographies - including ``And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?'' and others featuring figures such as Sam Houston, Benedict Arnold, James Madison, and Pocahontas - grew out of a need ``to accumulate a long American past for my displaced childhood,'' she says. Turning to history was a natural outgrowth of her curiosity about her ``native'' country of the United States - a country she didn't see until she was 13. Writing has helped her define her own history, her own sense of who she is and where she belongs.

Paterson, two-time winner of the National Book Award for children's literature and winner of the 1977 Newbery Medal for ``A Bridge to Terabithia,'' was a Presbyterian minister in Japan before becoming a writer, and her stories, while never moralistic, contain an underlying spirituality that brings depth to her fiction.

One of the turning points in her life, Paterson says, came long before she had any inkling that she might some day write, when a college professor introduced her to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. That encounter was crucial in teaching her ``something about how language works on the ear and the mind and the heart.''

For her, one of the litmus tests of language, and consequently of fiction, is beauty. She points out that the first question today's physicists ask of a new theory is: Is it beautiful? And for them, beauty is defined as ``simplicity, harmony, and brilliance.'' Brilliance refers not to intellectual cleverness but to ``the light that the book sheds not only on itself but beyond itself, to other stories and other lives.''

``Beauty, so defined,'' she explains, ``is a good test to apply to art of any kind, particularly to the art of children's books. For the stories that have endured, the stories to which we turn as we seek to shape our lives, are all beautiful in this sense.''

There probably exists no single group of writers more passionate about their craft than those who write for children, and the value of ``Worlds of Childhood'' lies in the fact that it's a collection of talks by people who actually have something to say. The writers of this book give readers an honest look at what they find exciting and difficult and meaningful about the art of writing for children.

And for anyone who has ever read and loved a children's book, and who has wondered about those who create them, this window on a writer's craft is a rare treat.

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