In Which I Am Wrong Again, But in the Best Possible Way

Long, long ago, way back in March (?), I heard that Martin Amis made an ass of himself in talking about children's literature. I took umbrage, as many people did, and I walked home from grocery shopping deep in an intricately worked out imaginary world in which I was somehow being interviewed, along with Mr. Amis and various other personages, and I made many salient and cutting points. When I got home I boasted to my husband about the mincemeat I'd made of imaginary Martin Amis and why, and I explained to him the insult he'd given children's literature. And my husband said, "People are upset about that? Why?"

"Because he's being rude and dismissive."

"Why are people not seeing the upside of this?"

"What upside?"

"We never have to read any children's books by Martin Amis."

And I thought: hmm, you know he's got a point.

And it made me think about why certain people are able to write books that kids love, and other people are not (aka, why does a children's book by Martin Amis sound so heinous?). Is there a certain kind of writer whose work appeals to children? And if so, why?

And then the next thing happened: I have long been a fan of Allegra Goodman. She is a sharp incisive writer, very subtle. Her mastery (why does no one say mistressy?) creeps up on you unawares, which I think is another way of saying that she's not a show off. Her first book is a series of connected short stories, her more recent book is the glowing and lovely novel The Cookbook Collector, and lo and behold I found out that she also wrote a book for kids: The Other Side of the Island.

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And here's the thing that (I hope) connects it all together: I was pretty certain that with her particular skills, while her novels for adults were excellent, her book for kids would be less so. Why? I am not certain, partly because even in her first book, written when she was  unforgivably young, her sympathies lie with adults. Her worldview is—not sophisticated exactly (though it is that as well) but…grown up. A friend of mine has the belief that each of us has a "true age"—an age that resonates in some deep way with our true selves. In my view, Allegra Goodman's true age is somewhere in her 50s, sharp and wise; not cynical but knowing. And so, went my fairly crackpot theory, her writing, while skilled, wouldn't speak to the young.

So? I found her book and read it. And it is, as is all her work, fine tuned and thoughtful, also exciting and dark (it's dystopian and climate-based), also faithfully attempting to expore the hidden parts of her characters' hearts. But too, her book diverged from so much in children's literature, in a most particular way: the grown ups are the ones who know the truth, who speak the truth, who fight the system, and ultimately go and take action. The kids, particularly our heroine, need convincing. What was this, I asked myself, but proof! Proof that there was some essential difference in a writer for grownups  and one for children. What kid would stand for that? No one! And then I left the book there on the coffee table.

And while I was off somewhere being certain, Diana picked it up. And read it. And loved it.

Not only did she love it, but she kept telling me how much she loved it. "You know, it's really good. It's really interested. And that boy character was really interested. It was just really good." And so on.

And so I was wrong. And I am back at the drawing board. Which is good, right? Because it's better to be wrong and have there be one more beloved book in the world, than the other way around.

Is there something in particular that makes a writer good at writing for children? I have no idea at all, apparently.

But you should read The Other Side of  the Island. It's got a smart, flawed heroine. It's pretty interesting.

And my true age? I think maybe it's 10.

5 thoughts on “In Which I Am Wrong Again, But in the Best Possible Way

  1. was told by a group of 12 year olds that i ‘just get’ them. so no worries! my true age is pre-teen, apparently. the cookbook collector was marvelous, and i had no idea this existed. will be checking it out soon.
    also, why couldn’t john grisham have had a loathing for kidlit? i can actually remember enjoying his adult books as a teenager, but now? great god in heaven i want to punch the theo boone books in the face.
    also, i am forever thankful that mitch albom would rather yell at kids to get off his lawn than write books about them.

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  2. What an interesting thought. Now I am going through my favorite authors of adult and kid lit and have to ponder. I have no idea if there is a formula, maybe a good book just speaks to people who like good writing? I need to read this author! On my list.

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  3. Nah, I think you’re right about this. Perhaps it has something to do with remembering being a child – but also with what kind of person the author is,her temperament,and her interest in other people. It’s a very interesting theory. Just the thought of reading a children’s book by Martin Amis makes me shudder. Whereas I would like to read one by Haruki Murakami (for some reason I think it would be a picture book).
    To support your exposure: My true age is 12, I think.

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