A Brief Mediation on Books and Comics for Kids
"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book' . . . I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write." -- Martin Amis (from this article; Amis, if you don't know him, was named by The Times as one of the 50 best British authors since 1945)
(picture of small child from the University of Washington Digital Collection)
As emblemified this past week by Martin Amis, there's a general perception that writing books for kids takes less skill, talent, sensitivity, reach, [insert any additional positive attributes you can think of here], than writing books for adults.
Whenever I hear this argument (and I hear it pretty frequently), I think about the books I read in middle school about the Holocaust, about child abuse, about assisted suicide, about parental abandonment, about homophobia and other kinds of prejudice.
You probably read all those books in middle school, too.
Take a minute to think about them.
While you're thinking, consider the following: no matter how distasteful and uncomfortable and not-good we all find things like the Holocaust and suicide and all kinds of prejudice, they do exist. People have to find out about them at some point. If kids are lucky in their friends and family and community, perhaps the first time they'll discover the existance of something like child abuse is through a book. And if kids are unlucky in their friends and family and community, perhaps a book is the first time that they'll discover there's a name for what they're going through, that they're not alone, and that it's not okay.
Wouldn't you want that book to be the best book possible? Wouldn't you want that book to be well-written and sensitive and thought-provoking and transcendant?
If you don't think that pulling all of that off takes all the time and energy and care and dedication and skill that writing adult fiction does, then you are wrong.
Working in comics, we get an even shorter end of the stick here, because traditionally, comics for kids: full of superheroes or funny animals! Policed by the now-defunct Comics Code Authority! Produced for reluctant readers: no serious content allowed!
So there's a continually lingering conception of comics for kids that rides the coattails of Martin Amis' assumption about kids books: they're simplistic, infantile works not fit to be read by the Common Man (or Woman).
Of course, most of these people are not the ones on the internet, who are engaged in the discussion and actively reading the books. But if you went to your local middle school and surveyed the parents, I wonder how many of them would agree with the statement, 'Comics are quality literature; my kid needs to read Smile just as much as he or she needs to read A Wrinkle in Time."
Not as many as I'd like.