Monday, May 14, 2012

Writing out of the box

Recently I’ve read a few really great fantasy novels for grown-ups and I'm wondering: am I limiting myself by writing for children? Usually I dismiss fantasy for adults as somehow fake or lame. My feeling is (or was!) "This stuff is supposed to be written for children—and me and my few friends who are cool enough to appreciate it." But it was so refreshing in The Magicians by Lev Grossman when the magicians in training actually curse, and then they have sex for the first time after they transform into Arctic foxes. (But not at the same time!) I loved the moment in The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern when we get to follow the hero and heroine PAST being young adults and watch them confront the problem of aging within the confines of their magical world. These are things you just wouldn't put in your ordinary YA fantasy novel, partly because of commercial considerations and partly because of the expectations of the genre. It just sort of isn't done. And do I want to be in this little genre box where these things aren't done? But then a real event interrupted my thoughts: Maurice Sendak died. And as I pored over the many tributes to him and his iconoclastic, uncompromising style, I started thinking about how little he censored himself, and how that was a big part of his greatness: Naked butts (Night Kitchen). Giant cannibal babies (Higgledy Piggledy Pop). Boys who menace the dog with forks. Sendak never pulled his punches because he was writing for kids. Should we? What about you? Do you censor yourself in writing for kids? Is there any other reason besides marketability to censor ourselves in writing for them?


  1. I think this all goes back to the old saying about how you have to write something stunning to make it okay to break the rules.

  2. Hi Ariel,

    I don't think I censor myself in writing for kids. This is just the voice I naturally write in. (I was doing a presentation for a group of fellow teachers once and I read aloud a quote that included a swear word-- they all laughed because I blushed. :o) )

    As far as what reasons there might be to censor ourselves in writing for kids, I can think of one possibility... developmental appropriateness. And I guess I don't think of this as censoring, so much as using judgement. The wonderful books that Judy Blume wrote for teens and preteens (Are You There God? It's Me Margaret?, Then Again Maybe I Won't, and more!) were just right for their intended audience. As kids we loved them, even if censors might not have.

    But a writer for younger children might want to consider if a book will be too scary / terrifying for the age group it is intended for. Again, I don't think of this as censoring so much as in using judgement.

    And yet, now that I think of it, Roald Dahl contains some pretty scary things in his wonderfully funny books. But I do remember reading an interview in which he talked about how he made the scary things happen. I think they were always offstage, so that kids didn't have to actually see them. So again, developmental consideration.

    Great question! Definitely lots of food for thought!