Writing Down &c.
Doing research for the Kid Blog post, “The City Cat and the Country Cat” at Missy Missy’s School, I stumbled upon a lengthy entry by Hugh Lofting (creator of Doctor Doolittle1) in The Junior Book of Authors (1934). After Lofting tells of the inspiration for Doctor Doolittle (see the post above at the Kid Blog), he launches into a sharp criticism of The Business of Writing and Publishing Children’s Books.
I agree with him, with one caveat, below. Similar thoughts have been in the back of my brain, though under the heading of “The Rules of Kidlit.” I thought I’d relate Lofting’s nearly century-old criticisms to what I’ve learned about the Business. (And I really am no authority!)
The first thing Lofting does is reject the notion of authority, his own and others, in writing for children. He claims his success is due to writing and illustrating “in my own way,” but that there is “no end to the variety of ways” in which one could write for children. Thus, “no one is a real authority.” This is not a widely held view today. Authority abounds in the children’s book industry.
As a side note, he says the tendency to view and classify children “as almost a distinct species,” therefore sorting books into the category “Juveniles,” should be balanced by establishing the book category, “Seniles.” I laughed out loud. He’s here setting up his second point of “primary importance” in writing for children.
One of Lofting’s major points is that the writing should be entertaining. “Nothing should be allowed to interfere with or sacrifice that entertainment.” By the time he wrote this autobiographical entry (presumably in 1934), he had published nine Dolittle books, the first of which in 1920. During this time sermonizing again began to show up in children’s stories. Lofting says there is never any excuse for a “preachment.” I had a good idea what that meant, but looked it up anyway. Webster’s (1953): a tedious exhortation; a religious harangue.
Writing down to children is another problem Lofting identifies. He claims that no one wants to be patronized or talked down to.
What the intelligent child likes is to be “written up” to. He wants promotion; he wants to get into the adult world; he wants progress; and I have always maintained and always will maintain there is no idea too subtle, no picture too difficult to be conveyed to a child’s mind, if the author will but find the proper language to put it in.Huge Lofting in The Junior Book of Authors (1934) , pg. 238
My little copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (no date)–the original picture book–measures 4.25 x 5.75″, comes in at 60 pages.
This problem has gotten worse over time, I think. Part of the issue stems from the over-categorization of children’s books, along with computerization of descriptive information. Grade level, age, and other metadata assume a stereotypic kid–a “distinct species” of reader. The problem is compounded by how easy it is to slap a paragraph or two into a “readability” program (which has its own assumptions). I once did that with some Hemingway (decidedly not for kids) and it turns out that Hemingway wrote for 5th graders.
I don’t want to belabor this point, but writing down is real problem. (This opinion is based on what I read, see, and hear; I haven’t done any research.) I understand a seven year old is not going to get anything from War and Peace. But how do kids learn to climb up in their reading skills, comprehension, vocabulary, etc. if there isn’t even a ladder?
On a related note, Lofting claims there “should be just as many kinds of stories for children as there are … for grownups.” He finds it “pathetic” that children’s writer only write about “pussy cats and puppy dogs. When really there is nothing in the whole wide world they are not interested in.” Looking at the offerings of bookstore chains, this pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, I think. I doubt many contemporary topics on the juvenile shelves were what Lofting had in mind. But his criticism stands. There are rules, not so much about subject matter but about other structural issues of a children’s book. For example, the hero of a kids’ book cannot be too much older than the target audience. No other main characters can be outside that age range. Mom and Dad, teachers, much older neighbor kids should play nothing more than supportive, minor character roles in a middle-grade book.
Along the same lines, scenes can only be described piecemeal throughout the story. A child cannot be expected to read a chapter devoted only to setting the overall scene. No one reads Tom Brown’s School Days anymore, but that rule chucks the entire beautiful first chapter of the old classic out the window.
Lofting’s claims his assertion, there is nothing in the world that doesn’t interest children, is proved by “the fact that, whenever a book is a real success for children, it is also a success and an enjoyment for grownups.” Another author of children’s books said something similar about 20 years later.
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. The good ones last.C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (1952)
I’ll stop here! May finish next time with an additional thought or two.
Miss Missy’s School Book I: A Pack of Farm Dogs Starts a School by Marica Bernstein. Illustrated by Caroline Cooper. The story of an entertaining and endearing family on a farm in Mississippi, and how they came to start a school for animals.
- Using The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (1995, 1st 1984) as my authority, I’m going to conclude that there’s no answer to the question, “Doctor or Dr.?” so I’m going with the former.
Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown’s School Days by an Old Boy. Blackie and Son Limited. 1857.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft. The Junior Book of Authors. The H.W. Wilson Company, New York. 1934.
Lewis, C.S., Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, eds. The Quotable Lewis: And encyclopedia of quotes from the complete published works of C.S. Lewis. Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois. 1963.
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