Michael Rosen
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Here’s my introduction to this year’s Writers and Artists Yearbook

Yearbook

People who can write for children don’t come with a same-format personality or a made-to-measure range of skills. We aren’t people who can be easily categorised or lumped together.  In part, this is because the world of children’s books is constantly changing, starting out from a very diverse base in the first place. This derives from the fact that the world the children inhabit is changing and indeed that there is a recognition within the children’s books milieu that books are for everyone, not just one small section of the population.

In a way, this means that this is a great time to be writing or illustrating children’s books.  But that comes with a warning: diverse and changing – yes -  but within a set of conventions (I won’t say ‘rules’), and formats.  So, quite often I hear of people who say that they have written some stories or poems for children and would I please take a look at them. Sometimes, the first problem that I can see with what they’ve written is that it doesn’t ‘fit in’. Or, another way of putting it, the writer hasn’t taken a look at what’s out there in the bookshops and schools and thought: how can I write something that could go alongside that book, or fit the same niche that that particular book occupies?

But what about artistic freedom? What about the rights of the writer to write about anything?

Two things in response to that: nothing can stop us writing about anything you want to, however you want to. But there’s no point in kidding ourselves that writing is really ‘free’. We all write with our ‘reading heads’ on. That’s to say, we write with the words, sentences, pages, chapters, plots, characters, scenes of the books we’ve read. If you say to yourself, ‘I want to write a novel’ or ‘I want to write a picture book text’, you’re only doing so because  your mind is full of novels or picture book texts. They are the ‘already written’ or the ‘already read’ material we write with. This affects everything we write, right down to the shape and structure of what we write, the tone we hit in the passages we write, the kinds of dialogue and thoughts we put into the writing.  A crude analogy here is cooking. We cook with the ingredients that we are given. But more: if we say, we are going to make a cake, there is an understood outcome of what that will be (the cake), and an agreed set of ingredients that can arrive at that understood outcome. So, in a way, we not only cook with appropriate and given ingredients, we also cook with an understood outcome in mind. It has a shape, a smell and a taste that we expect the moment someone says, ‘Here is a cake.’ Our memory of past cakes prepares our mind and taste for what is to come. This set of memories of past writing and reading is what is in our mind as we write and indeed in the minds of the child readers as they sit down to something they can see is a book, or a novel or a picture book. These are what are knows and the ‘intertexts’ we read and write with – memories of past texts.

Secondly, though  of course you can write about anything you want to and in any way you want to, I would say that if you’re interested in being published, then you have to look very, very closely at what publishers publish. This means looking at books not only from the point of view of what they say and how they say it. It means looking at what kind of book it is, are there are other books like it? How would you categorise it? This asks you to put into your mind a sense of format, of shape, of outcome to guide you as you write. Another analogy: an architect who is asked to design a house knows that he or she has to create rooms that are high enough and large enough for people to live in, that there is a basic minimum of kitchen and bathroom, there is a door to get in and out of and so on. If it fulfils these conditions, we will call it a house – and not a factory, or a warehouse, say. It’s a great help sometimes to look at books from an architect’s point of view: what is in this book that was necessary to make it work? Ask yourself, how did the writer reveal what was coming next? Or, how did the writer hold back and conceal what was coming next? (Writing is a matter of revealing and concealing!) How did the writer arouse your interest? Was it an invitation to care about the people or creatures in the story? Or was it more to do with events or happenings? Or both? Did the book announce itself as being of a particular genre: thriller, historical fiction, comedy etc? How did it do that? What are the requirements of that genre? Or is it a hybrid?

If all this sounds too technical then I’ll introduce someone else: the child. If you say to yourself, I’m going to write for children, then  even as you say this, you’re putting an imagined child  (or children) into your mind. This is what literary theorists call ‘the implied reader’. We do this in several ways. There might be a very real child we know. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote ‘Treasure Island’ largely as part of his relationship with his stepson, Lloyd. But even though we might say, ‘RLS wrote it for Lloyd’, this doesn’t really explain things. What Stevenson was doing, possibly without knowing it, was keeping a mental map of Lloyd’s speech and personality in his mind, so as he wrote, he had his version of Lloyd in his head monitoring, guiding and censoring what he was writing.

There is no one way of importing the implied child reader into your head. Some writers do it from memory. They connect with the child they once were, using that version of themselves to guide them in what they write and how they write it. They use memories of what they liked to read, how they themselves spoke and thought and perhaps wrote, when they were a child. Others immerse themselves in the company of children – their own, their grandchildren, nephews and nieces or children in playgroups, nurseries or schools. And some do it by immersing themselves so thoroughly in children’s books, they pick up the implied child reader from the books themselves. And of course, it’s possible to work a combination of all of these ways. What I don’t think you can do is ignore them all.

In fact, what you write can’t avoid an implied reader. That might seem odd, because you might say that you had no one in mind when you wrote this or that poem. The reason you can’t avoid it, is because the language we use comes already loaded up with its audience. So, if I write, ‘Capitalism is in crisis’ this is a phrase that implies an audience that first of all understands English, then understands the words ‘capitalism’, ‘crisis’ and the phrase ‘in crisis’. But more than that, it’s an audience that wants to read something like that, is in a sense, hungry or prepared  and sufficiently ‘read’, to want to read such a sentence – or, more importantly, to go on wanting to read what comes next. If I write, ‘My Dad was attacked by a banana…’ then I’m already positioning the reader to think about someone who is a child and that child is telling something a  bit absurd or possibly funny, perhaps the beginning of a family anecdote or family saga. It’s also a ‘tease’, in that a reader who ‘gets it’, will know that bananas don’t attack anyone. It implies a reader who knows that. In other words the ‘implied reader’ is ‘inscribed’ into what we write. These implied readers are in a sense stuck to the words, phrases, sentences, plots, characters we write.

This means that as we write - and after we’ve written – it’s a good idea to go back over what we write and think about the implied reader we’ve put there. Who is the child who is going to ‘get it’ ? Who is the child who won’t? What kind of children are we talking to? What aspects of those implied children’s minds and childhoods are we talking to? The fearful person in the child? The envious one? The yearning one? The lonely one? The greedy one? And so on.

A last thought: we talk of ‘writing for children’. To tell the truth, I don’t think we do just write for children. I think we write as a way for adults to join the conversations that adults have with adults, adults have with children, children have with children – on the subject of what it means to be a child and live your life as a child. Because it’s literature, this conversation often comes in code, with ideas and feelings embodied in symbols (teddy bears, giants etc), it arouses expectations and hopes (what’s coming next?) and because it’s literature that children can and will read, it often comes along according to predictable outcomes (getting ‘home’, getting redeemed, being ‘saved’, removing the obstacles to unhappiness and imperfection that the story began with, and so on).  Nevertheless, children’s literature has a magnificent history of saying important things to many people often in a context in which adults are caring for children. I think that’s a good thing to attempt.

 

 

 

 

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