Since I’ve already written my first, now may be a little late to ask the question. Still, I’ve been thinking more and more about what exactly it is that makes for a good children’s book as I continue working on my second. What is it that makes a kid want to turn that page and never put it down?
Like with most things, I don’t guess there’s any sort of magic formula, although that would help. But when I look back at the books that got me going in my once-upon-a-time-long-long-ago younger years, the one element that always kept my interest was simple; a well-told story that plugged into my already overcharged childhood imagination. Those were the books that, I suspect, weren’t necessarily written with the label of ‘children’s book’ in mind. Because a good story can grab anyone’s attention, just like my all-time favorite Looney Tunes cartoons. What made those cartoons so special, with Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and all the rest of the crew, was that they didn’t treat kids like kids. They didn’t look down on us or pat us on the head. They actually thought it was permissible to treat kids like intelligent human beings who would ‘get’ the joke if the joke was told right. Granted, we were very small human beings, relatively brand new to the world, but somehow Bugs Bunny managed to create an ongoing punchline that was just as hilarious to my father as it was to me. We got the joke together, and enjoyed it just as much, albeit on different levels.
Because kids may be kids, but they’re not stupid.
And as I look back at all the books that were my favorites throughout the years, from Jack London’s “White Fang”, to C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” to Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, all of which I read before I turned 12, dating back to anything by Dr. Seuss, or E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web”, “The Little Prince” by Antoine de St. Exupery, or most definitely Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” there was always an intelligence in the writing that made me feel like I was smart enough to get it as it was. I read the Harry Potter novels as an adult, and I feel much the same way about them; there was no need to dumb anything down, or masquerade. The story trusted me, and I trusted the story.
So what I’m thinking? Maybe don’t try so hard to write a story for kids. Just write a good story. Then trust the kids to let me know if I got it right.