Madeleine L’Engle was a children’s writer who died in 2007. She is best known for A Wrinkle in Time and other children’s fantasies. The advice in this post is taken from Walking on Water, which combines writing advice with reflections on her life as a writer.
The passage below comes from a chapter called “Names and Labels,” where L’Engle tries to dispel the idea that writing for children is different than writing for adults.
Nancy Berkowitz, long a great friend of children’s books and their writers, told me last year that I’d given her the best definition of a children’s book that she’d heard. Having completely forgotten ever giving such a definition, I asked eagerly, “What was it?”
“A children’s book is any book a child will read.”
First my children and now my grandchildren are proof of this, moving from children’s books marketed for their own age range—the girls are ten and eleven years old—to any grown-up novel I think would appeal to them. All they require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer the protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist.
. . .
One summer I taught a class in techniques of fiction at a midwestern university. About half way through the course, one of the students came up to me after class and said, “I do hope you’re going to teach us something about writing for children. That’s really why I’m taking this course.”
“What have I been teaching you?”
“Don’t you write when you write for children?”
“Well—but isn’t it different?”
No, it is not different. The techniques of fiction are the techniques of fiction. They hold as true for Beatrix Potter as they do for Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Characterization, style, theme, are as important in a children’s book as in a novel for grown-ups. Taste, as always, will differ. . . A child is not likely to identify with the characters in Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Books like A Wrinkle in Time may seem too difficult to some parents. But if a book is not good enough for a grown-up, it is not good enough for a child.
So what, then, are the differences?
Most of them are minor, and apparent. A child wants to read about another child, a child living in and having adventures in a world which can be recognized and accepted. As long as what the protagonist does is true, this world can be unlimited, for a child can identify with a hero in ancient Britain, darkest Africa, or the year two thousand and ninety-three.
When I was a child I browsed through my parents’ books when I had finished my own. What was not part of my own circumference of comprehension I simply skipped; sex scenes when I was eight or nine had little relevance for me, so I skipped over them. They didn’t hurt me because they had no meaning for me. In a book which is going to be marketed for children it is usually better to write within the child’s frame of reference, but there is no subject which should, in itself, be taboo. If it is essential for the development of the child protagonist, there is nothing which may not be included. It is how it is included which makes its presence permissible or impermissible. Some books about—for instance—child abuse, are important and deeply moving; others may be little more than a form of infant porno. [Emphasis in original.]
Later in this same section, L’Engle decries the practice of “writing down” to children, which she equates with substandard writing. Then she sums up this way:
So a children’s book must be, first and foremost, a good book, a book with a young protagonist with whom the reader can identify, and a book which says yes to life. [Emphasis in original.]
Walking on Water isn’t for everyone. Madeline L’Engle was a dedicated Christian, and the book is filled with religious and philosophical concepts. However, writers with the same beliefs may want to read it for insight into L’Engle’s view of her calling.
And we can all learn from her comments on writing for children.