Be kind to your parents, though they don’t deserve it. Remember they’re grown-ups, a difficult stage of life. – Pete Seeger, addressing children.
During the 1860s, Leo Tolstoy ran a school for peasant children. He sometimes published collections of his students’ writing. One particular year, after publishing the collection, he noticed that one story stood out from all the others. It seemed to Tolstoy that the story could not have been written by a child. When it was eventually discovered that the story had not been written by a child, but by an adult, Leo Tolstoy was greatly relieved. He was greatly relieved because he thought very highly of children and had been reluctant to accept that a child could write such a poor story.
As an elementary substitute teacher, I read many stories that are written by children – stories that are by definition childish. And I am frequently fascinated. Like Leo Tolstoy, I am convinced that some of the best ideas are childish, and that many of the best stories are childish. I have seen children write stories about fantastical underwater battles, about blind aliens baffled by life on earth, about family trips where something goes wrong, about family crises where everything goes wrong. I have seen, in short, that children can write good stories. I have in turn become convinced that adult writers should never limit themselves to second-rate ideas and second-rate stories when writing for children. Because if they do, they will surely write worse stories than the children themselves.
Dr. Seuss once said, “I don’t write for children, I write for people.” The great writer-illustrator would in fact get angry when critics would refer to his work as “whimsical.” Whimsical, he thought, suggested frivolity. Dr. Seuss knew that his books were not frivolous. He knew that they were about stewardship and racism and loyalty and revolution. He knew that his books did not shy away from big ideas. He knew, in fact, that those ideas are the ideas children understand best.
Through my substitute teaching experience, I have learned not to shy away from big ideas. I have discovered that when I read stories to children, they may say a lot of silly things (“That ain’t no ugly duckling; I’ll draw you an ugly duckling.”), but they also say all the right things and ask all the right questions: “Did the little prince go to heaven?” “Can there be a God, because who would make God?” “Should good people help bad people?” “Why did the boy get older?” Children are willing and able to grapple with big questions, and I am enormously grateful to the children’s authors who were willing to pose them.
I do not think it is incidental that good children’s stories do such a great job of eliciting big questions. I think there is something uniquely important about the childish perspective. As Tolstoy put it: “Our ideal is behind and not in front.” I do not think great children’s books are books that contain adult themes that children can understand; I think great children’s books are books that contain childish themes that some adults are still wise enough to understand. For these adults, the best children’s books are simply great books. Philosopher and literary critic G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible since.”
When I was in first grade, I loved the Dr. Seuss story Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? The narrator describes a dozen or so unlucky, unfortunate circumstances, and by doing so builds to the conclusion that the reader is – all things considered – quite lucky. I remember being captivated especially by the second-to-last page with the unluckiest circumstance of all: to be a “rusty tin coat hanger hanging in space.” The illustration was as haunting as the words, and that page created the eeriest feeling within me. Today I would call that feeling the dread of nonexistence. I did not know those words back then, but it was the same feeling.
No important idea is too big for a child. Children have small vocabularies but not small minds. To write a story a child understands and enjoys – to write a fairy tale – is as difficult as anything in writing. But it is worthwhile. It is to understand life like a child, which is, in short, to understand life.