I have a 9 year old boy. When you have children, your life changes in ways you can’t anticipate despite everyone you know who already has kids (and who wear this piece of information like it’s an award) constantly listing all the ways your life is about to change. I won’t bore you with all the ways fatherhood is transformative except to identify one thing I totally didn’t see coming.
It made me a kid again.
Or, more accurately, it reawakened a part of me that had been half sleeping, almost forgotten by my conscious brain except in those dream-like moments where my imagination took me outside the world I normally inhabit, a world of meals and meetings, mortgage payments, and all things mundane.
It started early, when my son was still a baby. I’d be watching him crawling about or studying the mobile above his crib and I’d be struck by a powerful sense of something more than empathy, something a lot like memory. I started seeing the world through his eyes, recalling in flashes what it was like to be two, or five or—now—nine. I don’t mean this to sound mystical or a monument to what a great dad I am, I just feel that being around a child takes you back, reconnects you with feelings, ideas, experiences you thought were lost.
For me, this was the driving impetus towards writing middle grades fiction. I wanted to write something my son could read by himself. It was a kind of gift to him, I suppose, something for him that he could keep and which, I hoped, would transport him in the way I had been transported at his age by The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Wizard of Earthsea. Being with him made the possibility real, because I now remembered the kind of things I had loved in books at that age and, drawing on my experience writing adult fiction, knew I could make more.
I’m not saying that you need to be a parent to write for kids. That’s fairly obviously nonsense. I’m not even saying that I’m clearly better at it now as the parent of a nine year old than I would have been before he was born. I’m saying that seeing the world through his eyes rekindled both memory and desire, made me recall what I saw in those books and want to get back to them. It also somehow gave me permission to write them.
There is still a stigma attached to writing for children, I think, which isn’t banished by the fact that some authors have made a mint doing it. Books for middle graders are assumed to be somehow less serious than other kinds of fiction in the ways fantasy more generally is still occasionally sneered at as being merely frivolous or escapist. It sounds nuts but I think a part of me bought into this rubbish, and it took being a parent to show me what most upright humans already knew, that writing for younger readers is at least as noble a pursuit as any other kind of writing.
And, of course, however much the middle grades world is different, writing for it is hardly the learning of a new language. I have been writing adult fiction for a long time, but I was still surprised how useful everything I’d learned from doing so was when I turned to writing for younger readers. I don’t know why I was surprised. Humor, after all, is still humor, suspense still suspense, whether you are nine or ninety. The subject matter changes some, as does the voice (about which, more another time) but as far as pacing and the evocative laying out of key scenes, there’s really far less difference than I expected. I didn’t even need to spend time thinking over much about what present day kids find exciting or scary. However much the world has changed, the things that made our pulses race as kids can generally be counted on to do the same today and, more to the point, many of our adult hopes and fears are not so very different from the things carry around in their secret souls: Love and abandonment, the thrill of speed, flight and discovery, the dread of loneliness and dark places. Wordsworth, it turns out, was right. The child really is father to the man.
So however much my previous experience helped me, it was a joy to finally dive into this kind of book and revel in it, a joy—as I have said elsewhere—a bit like coming home. There’s something wonderfully uncluttered about a good middle grades novel, a realm where story really is king. That doesn’t mean you can’t do character and theme and vivid description, of course, but there is a curious sense of narrative purity when an author gets it right, where you feel sucked into the story so that the rest of the world goes away and you are transported back to when you read by flashlight under the covers.
What about you? Do you remember the first books you read alone for pleasure, the stories that caught your imagination and showed you all that books can do?