Why We Write for Children

Apparently Martin Amis, another intellectual elite who thinks that he is above children’s writers, said last week that the only thing that would compel him to write for children would be if he received a traumatic brain injury.

This is irritating to the extreme, but I’ve heard the same general sentiments expressed (though not so colorfully usually) a thousand times before. Charles London, an author for adults and children had a wonderful response in the Huffington Post that really sums up how I feel about why it’s vital that we keep writing important books for kids. He tells a story of a Congolese orphan he met in Tanzania refugee camp ten years ago:

When we met, he was 12 years old and he loved to read. He had little else going for him: he wasn’t terribly popular with his peers; he had no parents to look after him; he had no real prospects for the future. Congo was still in the midst of internecine warfare that would kill millions. This boy even drew me cheerful pictures of himself dead and buried, free from the miserable confines of his young life.

There wasn’t much I could do for him. I was leaving within days. I gave him a copy of The Little Prince in French and English so he could practice and so he could read a little about another refugee child on his own, far from his home world, trying to make sense of things. I gave him the book because he loved to read. I gave him the book because he lived in a world filled with too little kindness. I gave him the book knowing that it would change nothing about harsh reality of the life he was living, but knowing that it might mean something to him. Ten years later, the boy is still alive, a young man now, struggling, but surviving and trying to help other orphans in his community, against nearly impossible odds. The book I gave him, and others I sent over the years are certainly not the reason he survived, but I like to think they played a role. I know that within those books he could find the tools for resilience that are essential for survival.

As the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote in The Uses of Enchantment, “In order to master the psychological problems of growing up… a child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious. He can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams.” A story that can truly help a child to grow, he asserts, must give “full credence to the seriousness of the child’s predicaments, while simultaneously promoting confidence in himself and the future.”

An easy task for intellectual lightweights, Mr. Amis? While you spin your daydreams for yourself, with feigned indifference to your audience, those of us who write for children are taking on the task of equipping our readers for survival. It’s not always as dramatic as an orphan in a refugee camp; it can be as simple as a bad day at school or making a new friend or losing an old one, but story, when done well, can be a sanctuary for a struggling mind, reeling with the changes that childhood piles on. It is indeed a murderous world out there for many children and even those little earthquakes of the quotidian can be hard to handle, let alone the seismic shifts that sweep through the lives of the 21st century’s young.

May we all live up to these demands in our own fiction. Thank you, Mr. London.


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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