JULY 10, 2013
While there are some good poems which are only for adults, because they presuppose adult experience in their readers, there are no good poems which are only for children.
— W.H. Auden
WALKING INTO THE CHILDREN’S and young adult section of Barnes & Noble last week, I nearly did a double take to be sure I’d found the right section. So many of the writers featured were crossover authors, better known for their adult writing: names as diverse as Salman Rushdie, James Patterson, Joyce Carol Oates, Carl Hiaasen, and Maile Meloy were shelved alongside such established YA or children’s writers as Judy Blume and Robert Cormier. The question was unavoidable: why do so many successful authors for adults choose to make the leap to YA or children’s literature?
Certainly, YA and children’s literature represents one of the more vibrant areas of publishing today. But multi-platform writing is no new phenomenon. Leo Tolstoy, Mary Shelly, Oscar Wilde, and Gabriel García Márquez all published stories for children. And it’s not only adult authors dabbling in children’s writing; some of our most famous writers for children began as writers for adults. Dr. Seuss, for example, started his career writing for Vanity Fair, Life, and World War II–era leftist newspaper PM, in which he lampooned Hitler and Nazism throughout the early 1940s. In the 1950s, Shel Silverstein was contracted for a long series of illustrated travel essays for Playboy. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry won the US National Book Award for 1939’s Wind, Sand and Stars before writing The Little Prince.
None of these writers began writing for children because adult writing proved too difficult. Rather, they wrote for a younger audience simply because that was the correct form for the ideas they wanted to express. C.S. Lewis, in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” condones only “The third way, which is the only one I could ever use myself, [and] consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say.” Maurice Sendak phrased this argument more bluntly in a 1971 interview: “I know so many adult writers who I would happily chop into pieces, who say, ‘[…] I think I’ll [write] a kiddy book!’ […] [S]top pretending that there is such a thing as being able to sit down and write a book for a child: it is quite impossible. One simply writes books.”
To understand how one might simply write books for audiences of vastly different age ranges, it’s useful to consider authors whose work for young people is the continuation, logical extension, or — in some cases — the apotheosis of their adult works’ themes and obsessions. I include four particularly instructive examples here. (I should note, too, that contemporary children’s and YA writing is dominated by female authors; in this way, the following list is more representative of the authors I’ve read widely than of the landscape of young people’s fiction.)
1. George Saunders
George Saunders, whose excellent collection Tenth of December was released earlier this year, has been circling decidedly adult themes since his debut in 1996. Saunders’s work chronicles every kind of paternal frustration: disappointing one’s children, one’s ambitions, and oneself.
Yet The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Saunders’s 2000 entry into the young adult genre — complemented by Lane Smith’s beautiful illustrations — betrays the same obsessions as his adult work. Frip is a recognizable but alternate world in which children, to maintain their families’ economic livelihoods, must remove loving but deadly annoying creatures called gappers from their goats.
Like Saunders’s adult work, this alternate world is peopled with parents trying to do right by their children — often doing wrong in the effort. Here, the Ronsen family refuses to help our hero, Capable, because Mr. Ronsen “do[es] not intend to stand idly by while my poor daughters, Beverly and Gloria, who only recently were freed from gapper-duty, go marching out of my yard, into her yard, and lend a hand. What sort of father would I be?”
This is a recurring theme of Saunders’s: worlds defined at base by families — particularly fathers — navigating generosity and selfishness, always in the name of love for their children. Compare for example the narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries” in Tenth of December, whose “focus on being good father/husband, providing stable platform for kids” leads him to choose to “be like sinners in sense of: will err on side of protecting [daughter] Eva, keep cops in dark at all costs, break law as req’d.” In Frip, Saunders translates this choice to protect children from the law into protecting them from the labor involved in kindness: both are a sort of bad citizenship in the name of doing right by one’s own.
Saunders’s Frip concludes with Capable teaching the families of Frip a new trade, whereupon the narrator observes that “life got better. Not perfect, but better. […] [G]enerally, on most days, everyone was happier.” Though Saunders’s work is often suffused with darkness, this kind of mediated happy ending is not unique to his book for children. “Isabelle,” from his 1996 collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, ends thus: “But I look after her and she squeals with delight when I come home, and the sum total of sadness in the world is less than it would have been.” In his move from adult to children’s writing, Saunders’s thematic approach has changed little; he has simply taken the opportunity to set forth a plot more fable than dystopia.
2. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
If George Saunders replicates his central adult themes and concerns in his work for children, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry does that and more. In fact, Saint-Exupéry’s adult works betray a lyrical straining toward childhood that makes The Little Prince, the last book he wrote before disappearing over the Mediterranean, seem inevitable.
Though Saint-Exupéry is best known for The Little Prince, now the most translated book written in the French language, he was an internationally acclaimed adult writer prior to its 1943 publication. His 1939 Wind, Sand and Stars won not only the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, the highest prize for French literature, but also the US National Book Award for Nonfiction.
In Wind, Sand and Stars, many of the most prominent themes of The Little Prince appear in inchoate form. The narrator is preoccupied with friendship and love, explored amidst the thrill and fear of aviation. On the subject of lost friendship, Wind, Sand and Stars offers comfort in the knowledge “that our comrades are somewhere ‘out there’ […] [though] it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friend, that this one garden is forever locked against us.” Before the little prince’s imminent disappearance, he consoles the narrator by assuring him that “You’ll always be my friend”; he goes on to echo Wind’s preoccupation with lost laughter, saying, “since I’ll be laughing on one of them [the stars], for you it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing.”
“To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible,” says the narrator of Wind, echoing The Little Prince’s central theme that “we are responsible forever for the things we tame.” To tame, defined in The Little Prince, is to create ties; the prince’s fox explains the complexities of that process, insisting that “the only things you learn are the things you tame.” Wind takes the same position on friendship: “And these human relations must be created. One must go through an apprenticeship to learn the job.”
Wind also shares with The Little Prince the description of the soul as so fundamental that the body is described at various points as “an encumbrance,” “an honest tool,” and “a servant.” The Little Prince’s sad ending revolved around the prince believing that “I can’t take this body with me” back to his planet, but that “it’ll be like an old abandoned shell.”
Yet the relationship between Saint-Exupéry’s work for adults and children goes beyond Saunders’s, by not just replicating themes, but actually demonstrating a yet-unrealized strain toward the wonder, lyricism, and subject of childhood in his adult work. In the very first chapter of Wind, Saint-Exupéry says, “Let me draw the picture that took shape before my eyes. It will seem to you childish.” In this adult work, then, Saint-Exupéry displays the early currents of his expectation that readers will find his images childish, when they are in fact the root of mankind’s “human concerns.” If Saint-Exupéry inherently apologizes for his childishness in Wind, he dispenses with the need for apology in The Little Prince, when the narrator spends the first few pages expressing his deep frustration that grown-ups cannot understand his drawings.
C.S. Lewis is simpatico with Saint-Exupéry here, further criticizing those who deride childishness in the way that Saint-Exupéry seems to expect:
Critics who treat “adult” as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown-up, to admire the grown-up because it is grown-up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish — these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.
Saint-Exupéry’s literary bent toward childhood rears itself at several other significant moments throughout Wind. At one point, the narrator “oriented myself; I was the child of this house,” briefly proposing childhood as the proper storytelling orientation. Of little girls he hadn’t seen since childhood, Saint-Exupéry wonders, “What has become of these two fairy princesses,” musing that “They had been fused with something universal, and then the day had come when the woman had awakened in the maiden.” In effect, then, Saint-Exupéry paints childhood as the clearest orientation with which to tap into universal human experience, that elusive goal of the great writer.
The Little Prince’s younger audience also frees Saint-Exupéry to explore modes of fairytale and unreality — modes he is beginning already to broach in Wind. There, he describes the pilot as having “crossed the border of the world of reality,” “slipped beyond the confines of this world,” and been “among a thousand inaccessible planets.” The Little Prince brings these ideas to fruition, set as it is literally among the unreal planets beyond our world.
Most strikingly, the final pages of Wind marvel that “This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this.” In this philosophical, adult travelogue, Saint-Exupéry is considering already the figure of the little prince, the slightly unreal child fused intimately to some universal humanity inaccessible to grownups. Lyrically, thematically, and narratively, then, Saint-Exupéry’s adult work moves him toward the production of a work for children, as the best medium for expressing his themes.
3. Jerry Spinelli
Newbery Medal-winner Jerry Spinelli, unlike Saunders or Saint-Exupéry, has published exclusively as a children’s author. Yet he considered himself a writer for adults when he completed his MA in Fiction at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars in 1964 — and throughout the next almost 20 years, during which he wrote four unpublished novels for adults.
Spinelli, whose career has spanned 30 years with such YA and middle-grade standards as Maniac Magee, Wringer, Milkweed, and Stargirl, hit on the idea for his first published novel as a thought experiment. His idea, taken from life: a father comes downstairs before work to find his lunch eaten by one of his kids. But this time, he wondered what would happen if he wrote the story from the perspective of the lunch-eating kid, rather than the lunchless father. That experiment became his first published novel, 1982’s Space Station Seventh Grade, which he viewed as a fifth novel for adults until Little, Brown and Company pitched it as a middle-grade book.
This question of perspective — and, by extension, of narrative voice — is the most salient element connecting Spinelli’s writing for younger audiences with his only readily available work geared toward adults: his master’s thesis.
Like Saunders and Saint-Exupéry, Spinelli writes on tropes that recur in his writing for all ages. In particular, his work shares a certain preoccupation with old, lonely, generally good-hearted men reaching out to life through young adults or children. Of the four stories in his thesis, one is a family story entitled “Old Men”; another features a grandfather who sits entirely silent in a darkened living room; a third finds a student saying of his old teacher, who has just died, “He just asked us to come and see him one last time. Don’t you see … nobody went. I mean, there was probably no one to visit him but us, since he lived at the Y.” Albeit lonelier, these characters are of the same basic substance as the old men who reach out to the young in Spinelli’s published works: Archie Brubaker in Stargirl, for example, or Grayson in Maniac Magee — who lives alone not at the Y or in a living room, but in a band shell.
But in Spinelli’s case, it is not only theme but also authorial voice that strains toward writing for younger audiences. The first line of the first story in his thesis, “The Last Sunday,” reads: “Albert Driscoll, Jr., age 13, whose middle name was Chandler but no one was supposed to know, felt the muscles of his throat tighten.” The character is a young teenager, but it is not his age that harkens a younger audience; it is the sharp, kinetic matter-of-factness of the prose. Compare that style to the first lines of Spinelli’s Maniac Magee — “They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump”; Crash — “My real name is John. John Coogan. But everybody calls me Crash, even my parents”; Loser — “You grow up with a kid but you never really notice him.” All share an interest in origins and names, and all feature that direct, quick style.
In “The Last Sunday,” protagonist Albert’s classmates call him “little man” and “Albie baby,” mocking him for acting young and loving innocently. By translating his authorial voice to YA and middle-grade works, Spinelli essentially answers these taunts in the same way Saint-Exupéry did: by claiming childhood as a subject worthy of serious engagement, not a childish inability to grow up.
4. Sherman Alexie
“In 1979 I was just learning how to be thirteen,” writes one narrator in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. “I didn’t know that I’d have to keep thinking about it until I was twenty-five.”
For Alexie, the need to keep thinking about “how to be thirteen” long into adulthood seems to have informed his decision to write for the YA audience, publishing 2007’s acclaimed The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian 15 years after his entrance into adult publishing. True Diary, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and features cartoons by Ellen Forney, is not just the replication but the apotheosis of Alexie’s themes: art as a means of speaking to the world; the life-giving significance of books; fatherhood and maleness; death and loss; white versus Native-American culture; Native-American history versus present.
In writing primarily about Native Americans in a white world, Alexie is writing about a profound cultural and personal loneliness — a feeling that aligns well with the loneliness of self-discovery during the teenage years. This youthful loneliness figures heavily in one figure that recurs in Alexie’s adult and YA works: the semi-autobiographical boy born with brain problems who is supposed to die, but lives. True Diary’s Junior is “born with water on the brain” — that is, “too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull” — and “was supposed to croak during the surgery” that ends up saving his life. Lone Ranger, too, features a story about a Spokane named James who “came out all blue and they couldn’t get him to breathe for a long time but he finally did,” though “the top of his head looks all dented in like a beer can.”
Tellingly, James’s story is titled “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation.” Equating James with Jesus is a loaded parallel, in context of the misguided white missionaries who pervade Alexie’s writing about reservations. But thematically, Jesus on the cross is simultaneously one of the loneliest and most loving figures in literature. Both Jesus and the hydrocephalic boys who shouldn’t survive are metaphors for Alexie’s view of Native American culture: though sickened by both internal and external forces, it lives.
The close relationship between love and loneliness — “After that [kissing a white girl],” says another Junior character in Lone Ranger, “no one spoke to me for another five hundred years” — never quite finds a stable equilibrium in Alexie’s work. But his lonely characters tend to use art as a means of forging human connection. To the doctors, James’s father asserts, “Jesus I say don’t you know James wants to dance and to sing and to pound a drum so hard it hurts your ears.” Another Lone Ranger boy says, “I guess you could call it the only religion I have, one drum that can fit in my hand, but I think if I played it a little, it might fill up the whole world.”
In True Diary, the unmediated YA diary form gives Alexie the opportunity to express this relationship between loneliness and art in more direct terms than his adult works can. Junior says, “I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and read books and draw cartoons. […] I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me.” It is this direct, unabashed treatment of ostracization, otherness, and desire for recognition that the YA audience provides Alexie, allowing him to treat his overarching themes with a greater degree of straightforwardness and candor.
Whether shelved in the adult, children’s, or YA sections of the bookstore, all writers are ultimately submitting into a single oeuvre; that the themes of an author’s work overlap should come as no surprise. Alexie, in his new collection Blasphemy, attributes this overlap to the nature of literature itself: “The people in each book might be different, but the plotline is basically the same: Somebody is unhappy and they do dangerous and foolish things trying to become happy.”
Often, the overlap between an author’s adult and children’s writing is the creation of characters who suffer profound loneliness and experience deep desire for love. George Saunders’s fathers and mothers, alone in satisfying or disappointing their children, navigate kindness; Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s pilots, alone in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, long for their friends; Jerry Spinelli’s old men, alone in advanced age, reach out to the young; Sherman Alexie’s Native-American boys, alone in a white world, seek community through art. A concern with loneliness, otherness, and acceptance is rich fodder for adult literature — but children’s and YA may yet be the best platforms to express these potent issues that arise along the way toward growing up.