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Short Talk with a Prospective Children’s Writer

By Astrid Lindgren

So, you’re going to write a children’s book? You’re not the only one. Plenty of people who can hold a pen — and more than a few who can’t — get it into their heads every now and again that now is the time to set about writing something for children. What could be easier? All you have to do is make a start, and the rest follows automatically — all that childish stuff that the silly little things get so much fun out of. Let’s see now, what would be a good beginning? “Once upon a time there was an old kitchen boiler who went out walking with Great Aunt Euphemia Cauliflower” — why, that’s just right. Just tie them up together, and keep them at it page after page, and that’s it.

Is that what you thought? No, of course not. Your standards are higher than that, so high, in fact, that before you even put pen to paper you keep asking yourself: What should a good children’s book be like? If you were to ask me, then — no matter how hard I might rack my brains — I would only be able to say: It ought to be good. I assure you that I have given the matter some thought for a considerable length of time, but still I can only say: It ought to be good.

What makes a good anthology of poetry? What makes a good novel? Why has nobody ever asked either of those questions? Is it because there is no recipe for a good poem or a good novel, so that it is confidently left to the poet and the novelist to extract their creations from the innermost recesses of their souls without any guidance from outside?

Yes, of course; but you may object when it’s just a case of a short book for children, hoping the while for a miracle-working recipe. Oh, but, of course, there are recipes.

Take a bunch of jolly urchins, mix with a few villains, add a stupid policeman, and a nagging mother; carefully stir in an uncomprehending father; spice well with quarrelsome dialogues and a spot of rough stuff; and then, hey ho, for the publisher’s table!

Or again, whisk together Cyril the Squirrel, wise old Mother Owl, and Little Boy Blue, a touch of zany and umpteen jolly little quips; and there you are again. Serve cool. Of course, you could try a hash-up of the loveliest, liveliest little whirlie-curlies on the world’s loveliest horses, sitting in the world’s surest saddles, and bounding over the world’s highest and most formidable obstacles. Oh, yes, there are plenty of recipes. But since you are about to embark on your career as a writer in this year of grace 1970, it may have come to your notice that all this business of recipes, heaven be praised, is completely and utterly washed-up. The hashes and puddings of today are made up of completely different ingredients.

Take one divorced mother — plumber if possible, otherwise an atomic physicist will do quite nicely — the main thing being that she does not fall into the slough of domesticity and maternal devotion; add two parts effluent and two parts air pollution, a few pinches of global starvation, parental repression and teacher terror; carefully insert two dumplings of racial problems, two more of sexual discrimination, and a soupçon of Vietnam; sprinkle generously with copulation and drugs; and you have a good and durable concoction which serves any purpose.

All right, I’m being unfair. You didn’t want that kind of recipe. No sensible person expects to produce a good children’ book simply by following a recipe, and no doubt you fully realize that what goes for poetry also applies to children’s books — if there is to be any point in them — and to any other kind of literature.

Seriously, then, you wanted to know how to be a good children’s writer — didn’t you? Nobody can teach you how to write a good book for children. For heaven’s sake, don’t go thinking that I am sitting here glorying in my own books and posing as your guide, philosopher, and friend simply because of them. Far from it, but I have spent almost a quarter of a century as a children’s publisher, watching manuscripts of all kinds floating through, so that, one way and another, I think I have learned a few lessons which could be useful to you as well. Just a few basic rules — the rest is up to you and your innate creativity.

First, language. I think this is perhaps the most important thing — for the language and content of a book to harmonize. If you write about Cyril the Squirrel (but you won’t, will you?), in other words if you’re writing for five-year-olds as being the age group most susceptible to squirrels, then you must not use words and expressions that cannot be comprehended by anyone under ten.

Now I’ve made you cross. Fancy having the nerve to sit here feeding you such platitudes! Fair enough. But tell me, why does one come across so many children’s books that have to be translated into simpler language before they can be understood by the children their subjects are intended for? Not long ago I read a book for linguistically advanced five-year-olds. It was an infantile thing about little trolls, so it can hardly have been meant for older children. I read it straight off, without translating anything, just stopping every now and then to ask my five-year-old listener: What doesrectify abuses mean? What does good council mean? What does abide together mean? And every time the five-year-old answered, “How should I know?”

One very good author I know put it this way: “I have found that the best way of writing is to practice a style which even a child could understand.” And yet, he was writing for intellectual adults. It is even more vital for people actually writing for children to write so that children can understand them. There is no shame in writing lucidly even above the five-year-old level; simplicity need not necessarily imply banality and emptiness. Often a poet will speak of life, death, and love, and all the most profound aspects of human existence in such simple words that even a child can understand: Have you ever stopped to think of that?

On the other hand, some writers take umbrage if you criticize their language and ask whether they realize that they are writing for children. One should never underestimate children, they say, never talk down to them, for they understand far more than we imagine. Granted. In my view one can and should talk to children about most things. But there still remains the question of how to talk to them, if they are to understand what is being said to them; nor can one altogether disregard the limitations of their frame of reference. If, to take one example, a children’s book is made to include an extremely funny skit on the minutes of a board meeting — and this in fact has been done — then, as I see it, the writer’s efforts have been in vain. To appreciate a parody you have to be au faitwith the thing that is being mocked, and I know very few children who have ever read the minutes of a board meeting. This, then, is one rule worth bearing in mind when you start writing. By all means, write things that only children will find amusing; and by all means, write things that both children and adults will find amusing; but never include in your children’s book anything which your own common sense ought to tell you can only be amusing to adults. You are not writing in order for the critic to eulogize your ready wit and your neat turn of a phrase — and don’t you forget it! Many people ostensibly writing for children are prone to sly winks over the children’s heads at a imaginary adult reader, so that the children are left out of their own book. Please don’t do anything of the kind.

The best of luck, then. And enjoy yourself. Believe me, writing for children is fun. At least, I hope you think so; other wise you might as well give up before you start. And I hope you will not be unduly oppressed by that business about “What makes a good children’s book?” — today, tomorrow, and thereafter. Don’t bother about it too much. Write freely and write as you please. I wish you and all other children’s writers freedom, the self-evident freedom of an adult writer to write as he pleases about what he pleases. If you want to write a disturbing book for children about how difficult and impossible it is to be human in the world today, then you are perfectly entitled to do so. If you want to write about racial discrimination, then again you are perfectly within your right. And if you want to write about a verdant islet in a coral sea, then you are perfectly entitled to do that as well. Yes, even in this year of grace 1970, you are still entitled to write about a verdant isle without necessarily having to stop and think: What rhymes with sewage and oil slick? In a word: Liberty! For without liberty the flower of poetry withers and dies, no matter where it may grow.

First published in Barn och kultur (June 1970). Translated from the Swedish by Roger G. Tanner.

From the June 1973 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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