Not long ago, I attended a small, informal gathering of fellow writers. We “talked shop” in the usual way: asked how each other’s projects were coming along, shared our hopes for our own projects, and discussed the woes of writing.
These get-togethers tend to be group therapy. Venting is part of the agenda. We complain about writer’s block, rejection letters, failed projects, or the writing process in general. Releasing the frustrations of the job typically leave us refreshed and ready to return to the keyboard.
It was at one such gathering I was taken by surprise when a friend and writer whom I respect turned to me and asked, “So how is your book doing?”
“Really well,” I replied. “I sold 25 copies during a school visit, and the class was really excited to talk about it.”
“It must be nice to have a built-in audience,” she replied. “It’s so much easier writing for kids.”
The conversation turned to how much more complex writing for adults is. As the only kid lit writer at the table, I was caught by surprise and didn’t know how to respond. Their talk had touched a nerve, a silent fear: Was I a lesser writer for setting aside my adult fiction and pursuing children’s books instead? Was I a sellout, taking the easy road?
For days after, I mulled over the conversation. I was restless until I found solace in my book shelf.
Looking through my book collection, I was reminded many of my most lasting favorites (not to mention many of the classics) on my shelves are in the realm of kid lit.
Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan. No one would think to snub these or discount them for their kid lit status. References to these stories are prevalent in culture and society. They are told and retold, revised and reimagined.
And the wonderful thing about kid lit is readers of all ages can enjoy it.
The mistake readers can make about kid lit is that it is unsophisticated. But David Beagley, a university lecturer in children’s literature, says kid lit can be as complex as adult literature. The difference is not the quality of the literature.
The difference is simply the age of the audience.
In a 2012 lecture series at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus in Victoria, Australia, Beagley tells his students of children’s literature, “Children are not simple-minded.”
Nor is their literary taste.
“Children are readers as much as adults are readers,” Beagley said. “The fact they read something different doesn’t make them any less a reader or appreciater of their literature.”
Writing kid lit has its advantages over writing adult literature. The turnaround time for finishing a draft typically is shorter because the word count is lower. The fans are always excited to meet an author. The language is simpler in some ways, although there’s a case to be made for writing with the goal of elevating a child’s vocabulary. (And it’s amazing what kids can learn simply by context.)
Despite some of the advantages, the stories are not lesser products. The Wizard of Oz has political interpretations, but it also addresses good versus evil and the importance of family. These are themes that are relevant to both children and adults. In Matilda, we experience both the thrill and fear of childhood. The book, while lighthearted in many ways, also addresses abuse.
Kid lit tackles serious issues. Fewer pages and simpler vocabulary does not equal lesser literature.
“It has value as a creation in itself, an artistic creation,” Beagley said. “It should be judged by that inherent literary value.”