Articles by, about, or with Rafe Martin

“Why I Write for Children,” by Rafe Martin

Originally published in the online journal Wordwright

If you know your purpose you can stick with it, through thick and thin and, in the midst of many dubious and criss-crossing pathways, more easily choose the road that leads to fulfillment of your goal. If I know why I must go from Rochester to New York City or Anchorage, Alaska or any of the other places to which my schedule says I’m supposed to go, it’s more likely I’ll get there—whatever the route and the weather—if I am sure about why I need to make the trip.

If you want to write books for children it may also be useful to put a little time into clarifying your purpose or purposes, to establish your personal sense of direction. Many new writers attempt writing “children’s lit” in the hope that it’s simply easier. Certainly, it can be shorter. And, perhaps, in a sense, it is easier, just as haiku is “easier” than writing an epic. Easier, that is, if you have the mind for it, the intention, the eye, ear, and talent to make it work. In the columns to come I plan to share with you something of what makes a good children’s book, how to work with an editor, connect with the right illustrator, even, hopefully sell your manuscript—things I’ve learned by the painstaking route of personal experience.

But for now I want you to just ask yourself: “Why do I want to write for children?” Watch your answers. Do you expect to make money or gain a degree of fame? Do you want to exercise a talent for cuteness? for myth? Do you have stories you feel must be shared, stories you know now or stories you grew up with or even, perhaps, heard as a child? Do you love clear, direct sentences and precise language? Does the propulsion of narrative call you? What, in short, is it that draws you to the joys and anxieties of the writer’s craft, specifically to the life of a children’s writer?

One of my favorite answers to the question—why write for children—is from the Nobel Prize-winning author, for both adults and children, Isaac Bashevis Singer. I met Mr. Singer in 1983, and for one weekend served as his host and his driver, chauffeuring him from speaking event to event, chatting with him about writing and vegetarianism (we were both committed non-meat eaters) at lunch and over dinner. His encouragement to me—a fledgling writer—was immeasurable. Here are words of wisdom from one of the master writers and storytellers of our time.

            “Why I Write for Children,”
               by Isaac Bashevis Singer

There are five hundred reasons why I began to write for children, but to save time I will mention only ten of them.
Number 1. Children read books, not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about the critics.
Number 2. Children don’t read to find their identity.
Number 3. They don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
Number 4. They have no use for psychology.
Number 5. They detest sociology.
Number 6. They don’t try to understand Kafka or Finnegan’s Wake.
Number 7. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
Number 8. They love interesting stories, not commentaries, guides, or footnotes.
Number 9. When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.
Number 10. They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.

(This statement, originally prepared by Mr. Singer for the occasion of his acceptance of the National Book Award in 1970 for A Day of Pleasure:Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw, was read to the assembled guests of the Nobel Prize banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm on December 10, 1978. Reprinted in Nobel Lecture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.)

After meeting Mr. Singer I went on to write—so far—about eighteen children’s books. I have published with major, mainstream, huge publishing houses as well as with small, intimate presses. I have worked with and without agents, with new and with most-major editors, with first-time illustrators and with highly acclaimed, established ones. When I think of reviews and awards I’ve received and of why I write for children I think, first, of one review in particular. It didn’t appear in a U.S. journal and it wasn’t for a book that did particularly financially well or one that even became well known—though perhaps it is in Canada, where it was published. The review, appeared in the respected Canadian journal, Quill and Quire , and it praised one of my books for “saving childhood for children rather than sending children out to save the world.” I’m proud of that. It reminds me of my own fundamental purpose in writing for children. Childhood wasn’t a sweet or sentimental time for me. But it was a time and remains a time in which the imagination flourished and the power of dream and wish were strong. I think that’s territory worth saving.

So, find your purpose and let it inform your work. If it is to entertain, fine. If it is to empower, fine. If it is to have fun with words, bravo. If it is to pass on deep lessons, great. If it is to share a faith in childhood itself, in people, in animals, in nature—terrific! This sense of purpose, this sense of your own delight—for it’s not grim purpose I hope—will extend into your writing, into the book, so that it lives. It makes your story the one that no one else but you could possibly write.

As you clarify your purpose make sure you also take the time to make every page, every sentence, every word count. (And remember this is especially so in a children’s book where you have only a relatively few words with which to do the job. It’s like poetry or a film. Ideally, every word must have a function and fulfill that function well.) A good idea won’t be enough. The road to hell is paved with them. Indeed, the one negative review I ever got (so far), nailed me on that. The reviewer felt I talked about the subject rather than making the subject itself live. And that, too, I take to heart and pass on to you. The story lives sentence by sentence. It’s in the details that your purpose takes life. Be as specific as you can. Really see and really be willing to feel what you’re writing about. Good children’s writing like all good writing, creates specific and vivid images. Details reveal the depth and accuracy of the imagination. This can be hard work, demanding work. Rewrites, re-visionings will abound. Clear your desk and be prepared. Children’s literature is a tough realm after all, and not just—as we all know these days—a tough market. You can’t get by here just on good intentions, good looks (or illustrations), or good ideas. They will help. But it’s in the sentence to sentence work, the line by line work, the sounding out of words themselves that your story comes alive. Someday, as you writhe with the effort, you’ll wonder why or how you ever got into this. That’s the time to take out your list of purposes and review it. Of course you did remember to write it down?

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