Writing for the Very Young: An Emotional Déjà Vu

by Charlotte Zolotow

The more I try to analyze children’s books — or the fusion of feelings and events that goes into writing for children — the more I realize what a mystery children’s thoughts are and what a mystery the whole process of writing for children is. Part of it is the imagery and events and feelings that are completely individual; part of it is the dreamlike, almost Jungian, merging of thoughts, fantasies, and desires that are universal.

I had a friend who was about to be divorced. She told me of a recurring dream: She opened a door in her house and discovered a room she had never known was there. Her dream haunted me, almost as though it were my own, and years later I used it in Someday (Harper). Last week a small girl who lives on my street rang my bell and asked if she could go through my house. “I haven’t been upstairs,” Andrea said. She climbed upstairs and disappeared until her mother came to collect her a few minutes later. “She’s upstairs,” I told her mother. “She said she wanted to go through my house.” Andrea’s mother began to laugh. “Ever since we read Someday, Andrea’s been searching for a new room in our house. I guess she thinks that because you wrote the book she’ll find it here.”

What a fusion this is: of my friend’s dream, with her unconscious telling her of unknown new things ahead; of my own inability to forget the dream once she told it to me; of its use in a book of mine, years later; and then of its effect on a little girl who wasn’t born when my friend dreamed her dream. There’s a continuity, a flow of something unexplainable, a lovely, slow, rich mystery that lies at the core of life. We would all like to find that room.

It is this unknown quality that flows through much writing for young children. Great writers such as Sendak, Andersen, and Grimm work with the dream material itself. Great humorists tell their stories through exaggerated or extraordinary characters and events. My writing is from a different place. Most of my books are about the ordinary, daily relationships between children and adults, brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, fathers and sons, and fathers and daughters, and the infinite variety of personal encounters out of which emotions arise.

Emotions, feelings — these don’t change. A child’s emotions are the ones an adult experiences — anger, jealousy, loneliness, loss, hate, and love. We are all the same, except that adults have found ways to buffer themselves against the full-blown intensity of a child’s emotions. Adults have learned through camouflage — through religion or withdrawal or resignation or humor or cynicism — to protect themselves from the full impact of their feelings. They have memory to help them. They have felt everything before. But children have no way to understand that sad, wise, eternal, truth “This too shall pass.” For adults the phrase can bring comfort. For children it denies the meaning, the moment of the experience itself. The more fully we feel good and bad experiences, the more fully we live. Children live more completely than we do. For them each experience is isolated in time. They are the true existentialists of the world.

How and why do people write for the very young? For me it is an emotional déjà vu. My adult anger or grief or joy or jealousy is intensified by its familiarity. I have felt this way before. I remember not only the childhood event itself but the feelings those events gave me — which are the same feelings I re-experience now as an adult. Through adult loss or change or love or hate, I remember the events of childhood, the simple, trivial, or even funny circumstances that gave grief or pleasure then. I see the events that set off grief or pleasure in the contemporary children around me. I use these situations which young readers recognize and understand, but as an adult writing, I am re-experiencing it all.

A grown person’s unrequited love evokes misery similar to a child’s misery when a big sister or brother goes off without the child. The loss of a wanted job to someone else in the adult world can stir the same sense of rejection that a small child feels when the doll or dog he or she wanted is given to someone else. We are not different from the children we were — only more experienced and defensive, better able to disguise our feelings from others, if not from ourselves.

“Youth,” as Samuel Butler says, “is an overpraised season.” Children keenly experience feelings that to the adult eye arise from unimportant events. Because the events seem small to us, we often don’t realize how deep the child’s reaction to the event is. But to remember is to empathize and re-experience, to respect a child’s feelings in a way that leads to greater understanding. Perhaps through our understanding these children will grow up with a self-knowledge to help them face the world. Self-knowledge is important; it is not to be confused with selfishness.

A friend of mine read The Name of the Rose (Warner). She told me I must read it and in her enthusiasm went on and on about the book. I later realized that the second she said, “You must read it,” a resistance set in on my part. I knew I was not going to read it, though I am fond of this friend and value her judgment and taste. As I examined my ornery reaction, I realized that more and more I have rejected other people’s suggestions for what I ought to read. I have so much left to read and reread and so little time left in which to do it that I want to select what fills my emotional needs — needs which are often different from, or unknown to, even my closest friends. It was not this way when I was an adolescent or in my middle years, when I had a wide, all encompassing, devouring, greedy desire to read everything. But if I think back, I do remember as a child wanting certain books over and over again and others not at all. Very young children, like older people, want to read or hear read books that help them sort out their own most acute needs, their own inquiries about life.

The unexpectedness of young children’s reading tastes comes from the sort of tunnel vision that their limited amount of experience, sensory and physical, causes. They are trying to assess their individual place in the world. Older people’s reading is deliberately limited, not because of too limited experience but because of too great. Older readers are trying to reassess the meaning of their individual lives, what their place has been in the world. The very young child and the older person read less to participate in other people’s lives than to understand their own. It is self-knowledge we look for. We must know and recognize our own faults and virtues or our own abilities and disabilities to properly find out what we are. In the whirl of middle life we are moving so fast; we don’t have time to examine ourselves as a crucial factor in events. We are greedy for life. We want to read everything. Events take over. But the young child and the older person look for themselves as a causal factor in the changes, good and bad, around them.

I remember once a small girl at the dinner table listening for as long as she could to adults discussing political issues and then suddenly breaking in by saying, “Now let’s talk about me.” Selfish? No. Self-centered? Yes. It’s intelligent to be self-centered. Being centered describes a healthy psychological or physical state. To be centered is good. Self-interest doesn’t lead you to ignore the interests of others - only to understand them better out of your own self-knowledge. That is what children are trying to do. That is why they choose certain books over others. The book is a world into which they are trying to fit their own understanding and feelings. It is good that there are so many different kinds of books being written for children today. If they don’t like one book, they will like another. They must be allowed to find the books that answer their particular emotional needs.

My first published book was The Park Book (Harper), illustrated by H. A. Rey. It came out in 1944 and is being reissued in 1986. I am pleased to have books of mine — written in the forties, fifties, and sixties — reissued because these reissues show that the text is still emotionally valid for children today. The children of the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies feel the same as children of 1985 when they are lonely or frightened or jealous or angry or happy. Although events change from period to period, feelings remain the same; children recognize and identify with the emotions in a book even more than they do with the event which releases them.

I try to bring these emotions to life in down-to-earth, everyday, ordinary events. In The Hating Book (Harper) the everyday episodes that control the narrator’s feelings are accessible to young children — a broken pencil, a friend not sitting next to her on the school bus; these small, funny incidents add up to a serious anger. Anger towards someone you really like is in the story not because I knew of two little girls who quarreled — as many young children seem to believe when they write me — but because at the age of fifty when I wrote that book I had just quarreled with a friend across the street. My anger and hurt and hate poured out when I sat down at the typewriter, full of rage that was familiar from childhood. We are not that different, adults and children. We experience the same feelings. That is what makes us, whatever nationality, whatever age — adult and child alike — more human than otherwise. That is why so many children identify with a book which I wrote when angry for adult reasons and began with “I hate hate hated my friend.” “How do you know about me?” the children write. I don’t. I am still trying to find out about myself.

From the September/October 1985 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Horn Book
Horn Book

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