Monday, April 26, 2010

Children vs Adults

I once read that children books should also be designed to target parents since they are the ones buying the books. I would think that there is some truth to that since parents probably look at content and often times decide for their kids. Do you have any words of wisdom on this?
Yes, that's absolutely something we consider in publishing, especially in picture books.

Picture books are most often bought by the adult for a child. Once you get into books with chapters, it's a more even mix of kids shopping with adults who pay vs adult shoppers alone. But yes, even then, the adult holds the purse strings and may refuse to buy something they disapprove of.

Is it possible to write a bestselling book that by far appeals mostly to adults and leaves children cold (or even creeped out)? Yes. Favorite examples include Love You Forever and The Giving Tree. You may have noticed that many people who are serious about children's books abhor and detest those books for their wildly dysfunctional relationships, but lots of adults get all mushy over them. So the authors (and their estates) can feel in need of therapy all the way to the bank.

Is it possible to write a bestselling book that by far appeals mostly to children and which outrages and disgusts adults? Yes. Favorite examples include Captain Underpants and Junie B Jones. You may have met upright people who abhor and detest these books for their bathroom humor and bad grammar, but lots of children will read them because they're funny. So the authors can feel juvenile all the way to the bank.

But here's what we're mostly shooting for: books that serve children-- their needs, their tastes-- and that will get by the gatekeepers with a minimum of fuss.

A certain amount of sympathy for parents is not out of place-- it's a tough job raising kids; a heroic job. That doesn't make laziness acceptable, and I'm one of many who think that if you know how to discipline your children, no amount of undisciplined-character exposure can undo the training your children get at home. But it does make tiredness acceptable, so I'm sympathetic to parents' preference for shorter bedtime reads.

A huge amount of sympathy for children is always appropriate. Being a child is a tough job; a heroic job. One of the things we fight in slush all the time is people who want to write for children and really don't know much about children at all. (Why do they do this? I would never decide to write for wombats. It perplexes me.)

In terms of audience, my recommendation: Children first, always. Adults advisedly.


Caroline Starr Rose said...

I LOVE YOU FOREVER has always given me the willies.

Chris Wolfgang said...

Well-said. Succinct. Good summary.

Anonymous said...

I confess I won't let my 6-year-old daughter read Junie B. Jones books even though I've never even cracked the spine on any of them. The title of one ("Dumb Bunny") was enough to turn me off.

I've also never read Love you Forever to my children because it creeps me out.

sbjames said...

I seem to have a split personality. I was totally creeped out by I Love You Forever but bawl my eyes out every time I read The Giving Tree. I detested Junie B Jones but laughed MAO as I read Captain Underpants to my son. (I admit his giggling made me laugh no matter the subject, but that silly name generator was funny.)

There is a role reversal in my house now that my kids are teens. They come to me, favorite book in hand saying "Mom, you gotta read this" And I turn up my nose and say "ooh, the bugs coming out of that half of a corpse is just too creepy" (Bone) or "I cannot take any more of that heroine's obsessive fixation on her boyfriend."(bet you can guess)

Anonymous said...

"Being a child is a tough job; a heroic job."

I love you for this.

Lately several of our kids' church activities have been scheduled for early Saturday morning, which I've thought regrettable because it's the one morning a week my kids get to sleep in or lounge around. It's important to me that my busy kids get some down time, and I've felt that the adults who scheduled these Saturday-morning events didn't respect that down-time need. It was just one evidence of a feeling I often get that some adults think of kids' time as much more expendable than their own, and are willing to ask things of kids they wouldn't ask of themselves or other adults.

You can count my husband and I as two parents who like the Captain Underpants books, grossness notwithstanding. We like the books' wit and wordplay, and that they engage our kids so well. Currently, along with the Ricky Ricotta books, they're our three-year-old's and six-year-old's preferred bedtime stories.

(Yes, this means we're churchgoers who love gross kids' books (certain specific gross books, anyway) which makes us part of what is probably rather a small demographic.)

King's Rabbit said...

Regarding your question (people writing for children when they don't know about children)I wonder if it's because of some bad premises: writing for children is easy because the texts are short, and it's easy because children aren't discriminating readers who expect lots of literary quality in their books. And, hey, we were all children once, so that goes far towards experience, no?

Well, no. Children today read stuff that I wouldn't have when I was a kid, just as what I read likely wouldn't have appealed to my parents when they were kids. And let's face it, if you don't know about kids RIGHT NOW, you'll never connect with their reading interests. That's not to say any of these books are bad, just that tastes change.

(And I sincerely hope I don't have to expand on my "easy because" comments... since all writing is fairly rigorous, despite its length or perceived complexity.)

shelley said...

I remember a story Maurice Sendak told. A mother related how she kept trying to read 'Where the Wild Things Are' to her kid even tho it creeped him out. "Why do you keep reading it to him if he doesn't like it?" was his reply. "It's an award winner," she said, "he should like it!"

Hmm, writing for wombats? Interesting.

Michael Grant said...

I wrote for kids before having them. I was able to stay in touch by refusing to grow up.

I don't write differently for kids now that I have them because I still refuse to grow up.

Writing is that rare career where immaturity is not necessarily a liability.

Mark Herr said...

So I should shelve my proposal for the chapter book series, Lil Dexter, Ruler of Dahmer Elementary?

Suzanne Santillan said...

Great Post. As the mother of two boys I have all of the Captain Underpants collection in my home. Do I love potty humor? No. Do I live with it? With two boys, the answer is yes. Do I think they will be scarred forever because of Professor Poopy Pants? No. But we sure do share a good laugh and it gives me a good opportunity to talk about what is appropriate language at appropriate times.

As an author I try to gear my stories to the kids but keep the adults in mind. There is nothing worse that having to read a boring story, unless it is to read that same boring story 100 times.

Thanks for the great advice.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Putting on my mom hat for a moment---

As a parent who reads aloud, I want books that are fun to read. I want books that let me do the voices and that enthrall my kids AND that are funny, exciting or interesting enough that *I* want to read them! (Current favorite at my house with the 6,4, and 2 year old? Cressida Cowell's dragon series. The kids are basically living, playing, dreaming and breathing Hiccup.)

Believe it or not, parents want interesting books too. A lot of us don't care if the book teaches a GOOD lesson, as long as it doesn't teach a BAD one. And not so much because I think my kids will base their morality on the chapter books I read them-- it;s more that if a book DOES teach a bad lesson (Say the bad guy kills the hero and gets away with it and lives a happy long life of world domination...), my kids cry. And complain. And bedtime goes from happy dreams of sword-fighting on treasure heaps and instead turns into "That's not FAIR!"

So, as a mom looking at books for my kids, I try to weed out books that are dull, badly written (because I hate editing as I read!), scan poorly (if poetry), and are too upsetting for my kids. (dead parents, OK. Abusive parents, not OK. Divorce, not ok for my kids but may not bother other people's kids as much)

Now here's the rub - not all parents are looking for the same things. Not all parents find the same themes problematic. So if you set out to write a 'parent safe book' that will appeal to the generic parent, you'll get nowhere.

Write the book you want to write. Try to avoid OBVIOUS problems-- no parent is going to read their kids a picture book about space-villains who flay their victims alive and then eat them--- but if you tell a good story, and tell it well, parents AND kids will snap it up!

Stephanie, PQW said...

Thank you for your sage advice. Writing for MG and YA it's always a toss-up on what to include and what to leave out. I guess a tempered balance is the key.

Lori W. said...

Your examples of books which kids love and parents abhor made me laugh out loud. I cringe when Junie B. on CD comes into my home (her poor grammar is doubly frustrating in the audio version). Captain Underpants also gave me pause, but, oh how I love it now. Both series were instrumental in making my children enjoy books/reading. Pilkey's work also inspired my son to spend hours creating comics in honor of Captain U. Perhaps that is why I have a special fondness for Professor Poopypants and J.B.

Thomas Taylor said...

I hate to be a creep, but this is an excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point about how many writers who want to write for kids seem to know nothing about them. Of course, we were all children at one time, but times change, and you have to understand TODAY'S young generation, not just your own.

Cynthia Reese said...

Wait a minute. What person in her right mind would be outraged by Junie B?? I discovered the Parks books as an adult, and I like those little guys very much!

Methinks that any who disapprove of Junie B were Tattletale May when they were in first grade.

Pah. A pox on them and their entire houses, too.

Anonymous said...

One of the things we fight in slush all the time is people who want to write for children and really don't know much about children at all. (Why do they do this? I would never decide to write for wombats. It perplexes me.)

But they get published ALL the time. They appeal to adults. I HATE THAT. Their main characters are adults. They write about things that adults savor and kids throw on the ground. There is no audience (kid and hopefully kid/adult participation and nothing really that appeals to kids at all... but has humor for adults. What gives?

Victoria Kerrigan said...

I have four children and I love to read to them. We have a pretty good library of awesome children's books.

(I wouldn't try writing for children myself - it's a lot harder than it looks. And a lot of people who write for adults perhaps don't appreciate exactly how hard it is until they try it.)

Anyway, my children are young and they're at the stage where they love detailed illustrations, ones that tell a story. A clever example of this we're poring over at the moment is a series called, 'The Little Red Train,' by Benedict Blathwayt.

I do look for books I'm going to enjoy reading to them - not too simple and that sit nicely on the tongue. (Kara Wilson's Bear Wakes Up, kind of thing, Jane Yolan's dinosaur books - that sort of thing.)

So yes, I pick the picture books, and they have to be fun for me to read. I don't care about message, and I agree with Deidre, so long as the message isn't negative I'm pretty good with it.

Nikki said...

Ugh, I hate the Junie B Jones books. I once tutored a twelve-year-old girl in English and those were her favorite books. They really didn't help her. I ended up trying to use them as examples of what she should't do...

Walter Helena Photography said...

Very true; thanks for your insight.

And then there is also the difference between books that librarians will like and that will fill the shelves across the country, and those that are too edgy to make it past the gatekeepers. I suppose this is more of a YA title issue, and certainly more of a sales rep perspective. But, ultimately, the gatekeepers dictate what titles will be seen by the parents at all....

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Suzanne said...

LOVED the Captain Underpants series. But I couldn't finish reading the Booger Boy one out loud -- it is the only book that has ever actually caused me to throw up (just a little, thank goodness). My son was unfazed and finished it on his own.

Christine Tripp said...

>Wait a minute. What person in her right mind would be outraged by Junie B?? I discovered the Parks books as an adult, and I like those little guys very much!<

Cynthia, ha, thank G I'm not alone! I also discovered JBJ as a grown up (age wise at least) and I loved, loved, LOVED her) It didn't hurt that Denise Brunkus was already a favorite illustrator by the time I discovered the series years ago now. But, it is Barbara Park's characters VOICE that has me in stitches with each turn of the page. I'm not a writer but I hear a lot about finding your characters "voice", and JUNIE B has this. Park is a huge talent in my eyes and, as EA speaks about here, knows her audience, knows children.
Personally, as a parent I had nothing to do with my children's book choices. I would take them to the Library, stand around, pick out my own books, then drive them home. That was the extent of my involvement, I read to them what ever they brought home. Some I liked, some I loved, some I were bored silly with. Love you forever creeps me out, the art doesn't appeal to me either but amazingly 2 of my children loved it (even when they were young). Have to admit, it can bring a lump to my throat alright but it's hard to get past the mother coming into the son's bedroom and his wife not rolling over in bed, elbowing him and saying "wake up, it's your mother again, she's wandering"!!!:)

sari said...

I will admit to both not liking The Giving Tree and also Junie. I am not outraged by her, but having three kids, I just don't have any tolerance for how she acts and I just don't really like her.

It's tough finding good books for kids. My middle son is 8, and he's at a weird age for books. He's not interested in Captain Underpants and other books are too formula-driven for her ("I like these but they're always the same story"). We found a few Eoin Colfer books ("The Legend of..." books) that he loves.

Claire Dawn said...

Wombats can read??? :O This is why I love your blog! I learn somethign new every day!

annie said...

Very well put. I also think that children develop their taste very young. Although they may not be able to purchase their own books yet, they'll keep choosing the same ones to read. (I know my mom tried to "lose" a few after a while.)

Michael Grant said...

Junie B. Jones is great.

Books are not medicine. They aren't intended to make you "better." They are entertainment and education, and when you deny a kid a book they want to read you are doing the child a disservice.

Stop being so frightened by media -- your kids' problems won't come from the media, they'll come from abusive adults, bullies, indifferent educators, their own genetics, random chance and all the other real world factors that make life interesting and sometimes difficult.

Let your kids read what they want to read. Don't erect barriers. Don't suck the joy out of reading by imposing your own overly-sensitive so-called standards. Taking a book out of a kids' hands is far more morally questionable than anything they would find between the covers.

Brimful Curiosities said...

My daughter started pre-kindergarten this year. Every school day she goes to the school library and picks out a book by herself that she wants to take home and read. I'm always interested to see what she brings home. Most often she chooses a nonfiction book about an animal. I think it is wonderful that the school encourages children to pick out their own books, and I've started encouraging my daughter to pick out her own selections at the public library, too. So to answer your, it isn't always parents picking out the books.

Melissa said...

Glad to hear you say being a child is a heroic job. It weirds me out when people (especially people in the kidlit field) don't respect children.

Erin said...

Considering that children have different learning styles and those styles have an effect on their interests, a book that is popular for one child, may not be for another, and that's okay. Some children like to hear a story by being read to, regardless of illustrations (auditory), some children need shorter sentences with action-packed art (visual), and others need to interact with the text (kinesthetic). It is important for parents to be aware of those differences so when their visual child isn't responding to a lengthy, award-winning book in the same way that the auditory learner down the street is - it's not because their child doesn't have taste - it's just a different taste.

Christine Tripp said...

Nikki, I think I can safely say that exposure to JBJ is NOT the reason your young student had a problem. More then likely she had a problem much more severe then reading a book in her youth that used childish speach.
This IS how children talk. Often, as parents, we think it cute and repeat it, encourage it in a sense.
Just today I heard a report on how some group or other is pleased that most family movies are portraying the use of crosswalks, seatbelts etc, then mentioned the movie "Elf" standing out in the crowd, as it showed the main character being hit by a taxi and ending up without a scratch. Sigh, what do these anal people want??? (though the group was pleased that "ELF" was hit while at least using a cross walk:)
Parents, in charge of picking childrens books, is most often a bad thing. Few of us can remember being a child, so how do we think we can be the gate keepers of our own children's reading material?

Anonymous said...

I want to defend Love You Forever. I won't dispute that it's geared more to adults than kids (although, if I recall, my older son and daughter did find it amusing, if silly) but I don't think it's dysfunctional--I think it's a playful, camp, absurdist expression of the truth that moms love their kids forever, even if they can't still rock them to sleep every night. Yes, of course it's dysfunctional if moms really try not to let their kids grow up. But I don't think the book is really advocating that; it's just expressing nostalgia for the loss when they do grow up and leave, as well as expressing that even though they do, the love will still be there. And I even think some kids feel reassured by the message that growing up won't mean losing the love of their parents. (Pshew, I think that defense was longer than the book.)

I won't try to defend the Giving Tree, though, because all I can remember about it was that it was either a) boring or b) kind of weird. Maybe I would like it if I gave it a second shot, but that was my youthful impression.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I think Silverstein must have written the Giving Tree as a sick joke.... because if it's earnest, it's totally out of character....

I hate the book, but I keep thinking that if I can unlock the humor, I'll realize it's really Uncle Shelby's ABZ book in coded for so it can slip past classroom censors--

either that, or maybe he wrote it in a fit of pique after someone complained that his poems didn't teach good moral lessons?

Anonymous said...

Someone bought Love you Forever as a present for my child. I must admit I hid it away and never read it because like others have said it 'creeped me out'.

Anonymous said...

You're all missing the gist of the situation.

Picture books should be created to appease the editor, alone. You know, so you sell it. Now if I could only figure out what species they belonged to, I could cater to them...

abc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
abc said...

Thank goodness I'm not uptight. My 6 year old daughter and I often laugh till we cry over Junie B. Jones and her goofy antics. Who can beat those wonderful moments?

I thank Mrs. Park for nurturing my daughter's interest in books!

M. Pasek said...

Has anyone ever thought about the thousands of adults who don't read at a 1st or 5th grade level? We need adult books at a lower reading level to help all the parents and adults who want their GED or just better their reading. But there is no one list for them.
Teachers have to search for hours to find books for their adult learners.

M. Pasek said...

Has anyone thought about the adults who may only be able to read at a "I love you forever" level? There are adults who are in GED/Basic Skills programs across the country who read at a 1st thru 8th grade level but want 12+ grade content. teachers have to spend hours reseaching and creating lists.

The Storylady said...

As a library Storylady, I've read many of Robert Munsch's books to kids. You have to understand his writing style. "Love You Forever" does hit a mushy spot for parents, but it's meant to be ridiculous and funny to the kids. A mom crawling in a window to pick up her grown son and rock him? That's hilarious!

Joanne R. Fritz said...

The Storylady has a point. Although I've never been able to stomach LOVE YOU FOREVER, I learned more recently that it's actually meant to be SATIRICAL. Bob Munsch is a performer and comedian, who was using broad humor when he wrote it, and the story comes across totally differently when he performs it.

I learned this from reading Shelftalker. Alison Morris did a great post about the book on May 6, 2008. Read the extensive (and ongoing) comments on that post and you'll see it pretty evenly divided between people who hate the book and people who love it.

That said, I have to go along with Kat,in the comments on Alison's blog: "What good is a satire if most of the readers totally misinterpret it and invest it with such syrupy, cloying sentimentality? Eccchhh. "

I heartily agree. It still makes me want to gag.

Becky said...

My girls and I love to read together. We have been reading a great one titled, "Sewing a Friendship" by Natalie Tinti, who in my opinion is an amazingly talented 10 year old girl. I have to say I love the book just as much as the kids do. The story plot is cute and I love how it promotes healthy friendships.

By the way, I am with abc... The kids and I love Junie B. Jones too! Hilarious!

Editorial Anonymous said...

Satire is a fine line to walk-- if you imitate what you're spoofing TOO closely, it stops being satire in anything but intent.

Christine Tripp said...

>When prompted to say what question he would like to be asked in an interview, Robert Munsch replied, "How has being a manic-depressive, obsessive-compulsive, recovered-alcoholic nut case changed your writing?" <

Munsch is a VERY amazing and interesting man and seriously is all of the above as well and it has certainly shaped his books and his storytelling. Kids LOVE him (as do adults) and GET him and I really wonder if it's due to his illnesses that have turned out to be his strenghts.
As for "Love You Forever". It began as a song he composed after he and his wife lost their first 2 babies. I don't think there was any satire in the story, I believe he was very serious about it, though just my opinion based on the circumstances.
I agree though, kids seem to see this book as funny and take the love at face value and adults either get weepy over it, sick from it, or both. Probably the reason it's been a best seller for, what, over 25 or 30 years?:)

Jeff Carlson said...

Here's another vote against "Love You Forever" and for "Captain Underpants." One of our babysitters gave us "Love You Forever" and gushed about it as The! Greatest! Book! Ever!

We read it once and got a bad case of willies. Stalker! Mommy Dearest! Yuck!!!

As for Captain Underpants, those books are loaded with clever writing and good fun, not to mention the awesome Flip-O-Rama action sequences. Fortunately, we have boys, so robo booger wars are ideal. ;)

Anonymous said...

Can you imagine the mother in Love You Forever holding a baby Captain Underpants on her lap? And Captain Underpants spouting all these scattological lovisms to her (they get longer and more disgusting with every new spread, and on the final spread he is holding his aged mam high above his head belting out something ineffable.

That would get a lot of attention and would appeal to large cross range of people.

Jean Ann Williams said...

Great question and answers.

It's nice to hear of someone in the industry admiting how hard it is to raise our children. Yep!

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