Unwilling to wait for September, I recently ordered from the UK Reflections on the Magic of Writing, an upcoming collection of the late Diana Wynne Jones’s thoughts on life and her writing process. I began considering a post about books of essays on writing, and then The Enchanted Inkpot came out with a great post on books about writing fantasy for children and teens, so I’ll just refer you there for those (including my quick note on DWJ’s book). But really, the books I’m thinking of are a little different. They’re the books that have inspired me as a children’s writer, and they’re not how-to books. They’re one of two things: interviews with and stories about children’s book writers or essays and lecture transcripts from notable children’s book writers.
But why haven’t more children’s book writers come out with collections of lectures and essays in the past decade or so? One thought, of course, is that the market doesn’t support such books. Another is that most children’s book writers are too busy writing books for kids to spend time compiling books for older readers about process and craft. It may be that this task is left to elder statesmen and/or really big names in the field. All of which explains more or less why the incredibly lovely books I’m about to share are mostly out of print.
These are books for people who are absolutely nuts about children’s books or the works and thoughts of certain authors, or those who are children’s book writers themselves. They are also a way of getting to know some very fine, idiosyncratic creative minds. Reading these books won’t just give you ideas about writing for children, it will give you ideas about life and what it means to be human.
Reflections by Diana Wynne Jones
Oh, sure, you can read a really long analysis of Tolkien’s work called “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” in this book. I’ll admit I faltered a bit there, though I read “Reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia” and even her letter to the editor of The Times Literary Supplement titled “The Value of Learning Anglo-Saxon” with some relish. But most of the essays in this book are about writing, and many of them incorporate stories from Diana Wynne Jones’s childhood. You will find some repetition, of course, since writers tend to use the same (very good) anecdotes when presenting at different conferences, and more to the point, certain experiences really do shape us as individuals and as writers.
Reading Reflections is like getting to know Diana Wynne Jones (why does one hate to say simply Jones? But DWJ works!), and she is just as you might expect from reading every one of her books—brilliant, creative, a little acerbic, dry in a bright and witty way, and reluctant to allow the world to be simply ordinary.
You will also discover, if it’s something you didn’t already know, that DWJ had a pretty horrific, neglected childhood that somehow contributed, not only to her imagination, but to her skill with character. Have you noticed that all of DWJ’s characters feel so real because they are flawed, and that her adults in particular (and I do mean in her children’s books) tend to be flawed in amazingly honest, complex, and selfish ways?
Diana Wynne Jones also explains that her own approach to writing is almost never to outline, though the mythological bases of Fire and Hemlock were so intricately layered that she did relent and outlined part of the book sometime after completing a first draft. In fact, when you hear how many myths DWJ alluded to in writing Fire and Hemlock, you will be vastly impressed; I know I was, though I have read the book more than once.
I can't forget to mention the wry humor in Reflections, most notably when DWJ describes the worst of her school visits: hair-raising! And yes, though it isn’t funny, the semi-hanging incident in The Time of the Ghost comes from DWJ’s childhood, when she and her next sister came within inches of hanging their younger sister, who wanted to play Peter Pan in the rafters. (Their parents were nowhere to be found. They hardly ever were, including when it came to feeding and clothing their offspring.) And in Aunt Maria, the manipulation of feminine power was surely drawn from DWJ’s mother, who was jealous of her own daughters simply for being girls.
Another interesting aspect of some of these lectures and essays is that they trace the evolution of fantasy, showing how it became more common in the years following Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books and, though often filled with odd rules, eventually opened up—though one reason DWJ mostly stuck to writing children’s fantasy was that it seemed much more inclined to accept an “anything goes” approach, at least in comparison to what was being more rigidly expected of adult fantasy writers. (See “A Talk about Rules.”) Diana Wynne Jones was a rule breaker, or perhaps more accurately, a rule ignorer. She was busy traveling new ground even as she carried a bundle of myths like useful herbs in a fantasy healer’s pack.
I’ve said before, as have others, that the best children’s books are subversive. Look at Maurice Sendak, for example—a born mischief-maker. And you just know that Mo Willems is partly his character, Pigeon. The best books surprise and challenge young readers, demanding that they see the world aslant, whether in beautiful ways or perfectly silly ones. DWJ's books are certainly among them.
I’ll just close with what came to be the most influential motif from DWJ’s childhood, a locked garden:
The garden that everyone saw was pleasant enough, though somewhat boringly laid out around a large square of grass. The Other Garden was quite different. It was like that garden in fairy tales where the king has counted all the apples. It was across a road, walled away from everyone, a blaze of manicured lawn leading to a tunnel of roses ending in an inlaid wood summer house, where espalier apple trees of types that are no longer grown surrounded plots of fruit, flowers, and vegetables. The bees had a plot of their own because they did not get on with the visionary gardener. Something about this garden caused him to build little shrine-like places in the wall niches and ornament them with posies and old Venetian glass.
My father would not let anyone go there. He kept the large, old key to it in his pocket and it often took several days of pleading to get him to release it to me, grudgingly, for an hour or so. When I got there I simply wandered, in utter bliss. I talked to the bees, who never once stung me, although they pursued the visionary gardener once a week, in clouds, and occasionally turned on my father too; I ate apples; I watched things grow; and I never once connected it with the garden in the piano-playing picture, though that was more or less what it was.
Meet the unusual, delightful, and thoroughly subversive Diana Wynne Jones in her book, Reflections.
Note: UK cover shown above.
Other Books from or about Children’s Book Writers
INTERVIEWS AND SUCH
The ABCs of Writing for Children, ed. Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
This book is a kind of encyclopedia of quotes—mostly 1-3 paragraphs—from children’s writers on a variety of topics. It’s just decadent with ideas!
Quote from Marilyn Singer under "Pacing":
When you’re doing a novel, it’s a mistake to follow a quiet chapter with another quiet chapter. When people talk about books being too quiet—a book can be about emotion and not be quiet. If one chapter is more dramatic, then the next chapter can be more quiet.
Origins of Story: On Writing for Children by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire (yes, that Gregory Maguire!)
These essays started out as Children’s Literature New England lectures given between 1988 and 1996. The writers include such luminaries as Sharon Creech, Maurice Sendak, Susan Cooper, Tom Feelings, Madeleine L’Engle, Virginia Hamilton, Margaret Mahy, Ursula Le Guin, and Katherine Paterson.
Quote from Sharon Creech’s essay, “Leaping Off the Porch”:
When I begin a book I feel like that “smoothbeautifulhorse” of e.e. cummings’s poem “the little horse is newlY.” I know nothing, but feel everything. All around me is perfectly a strangeness of light and smell, of a world that is welcoming me in, a world full of smoothbeautiful folds in which lies the breathing and silence of that someone—that character who is about to break her silence.
Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children, ed. William Zinsser
Quote from Rosemary Wells’s essay, “The Well-Tempered Picture Book”:
I had written a picture book that summer. I put every ounce of love, wit and lyricism in my jittery soul into that book. It was a real loser. I had wanted to write about an old woman who digs in her heels and hangs on to her house in the face of avaricious developers who wanted to tear it down. It wasn’t that this was a poor idea; it’s just that writing about anything is a mistake. The only books that work are those which fly through the air—the ones you let happen, not make happen.
ESSAYS, LECTURES, AND THOUGHTS
Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children by Susan Cooper
Quote from her 1976 Newbery acceptance speech, “Seeing Around Corners”:
[Cooper was writing “a family adventure story” for a contest.] I invented three children called Simon, Jane and Barney, and a rather vague plot about villainy and hidden treasure. I wrote a first chapter in which they traveled down from London to Cornwall by train for a summer holiday, as my brother and I had done as children.
And then a funny thing began to happen. The story, somehow, took over. My children were met at their destination by a very strange great-uncle named Merriman (why did I call him Merriman? I didn’t know) and before I quite knew what I was doing, the plot began to change completely. I forgot all about the E. Nesbit prize and the family adventure story—and the deadline. And I found I was writing a fantasy, full of images which had haunted me since childhood but which I’d never thought to put into fiction. In the final version I even cut that first deliberate chapter.
Dear Mem Fox, I Have Read All Your Books Even the Pathetic Ones and Other Incidents in the Life of a Children’s Book Author
Here’s a quote from the chapter called “Growing Up in Africa”:
There used to be a thorn tree near the bus stop, where people would gather for the meager shade. I heard unearthly sounds coming from there once—it was close to our house—so I leaped onto my bike and raced round to see what it was. A small crowd of Africans had gathered to watch a woman writhing at the base of the tree, to which she had been tied with strips of cloth. White froth spat from her mouth as she moaned and screamed.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“Never mind, Merri,” said one of my friends. “She’s having a fit. She’s mad but she’ll be all right soon. You go home now.”
I couldn’t go home. I was transfixed.
The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Paterson
This is a quote from a chapter (and lecture) titled “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?”
It was, therefore, with fear, alarm, and timorousness that I sidled up to the title of this lecture, “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” Certainly not. I hardly dared disturb my springer spaniel. But, then, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was looking at quite a different universe from the one Prufrock was referring to. The universe that confronted me was no sleeping spaniel. It was a universe already greatly disturbed. What could I do, puny creature that I was, that would make a perceptible stir in such a whirlwind? Better, I thought, to gather my children about me, double-lock the doors, bolt the windows, and huddle together against the elements. The trouble with this metaphor is that I knew full well that my husband and probably my children would be out there somewhere battling the storm. I have never figured out just how Chicken Little managed to get herself married to the Man of La Mancha, but there you are…. Perhaps writing a book is a form of timidity.
The irony, of course, is that try as I may, I cannot escape the universe. And in the end, the books I write must mirror it in all its terror as well as its grandeur.
Telling Time: Essays on Writing by Nancy Willard
This quote is from a chapter called “High Talk in the Starlit Wood”:
The fear at the heart of the ghost story is the fear of meeting our own fate; shall we not all, in the end, lie down in darkness and leave nothing behind but our bones? When I was a child, I used the word spooky to mean “terrifying.” I used it, for example, to describe my encounter in a dark church one night before a Christmas pageant in which I was to play an angel…. One by one, the children had been picked up by their parents, and I was left alone to wait for my father while Miss Blaine, the Sunday-school teacher, turned off the lights. I stood barefoot on the stone floor before the altar in my cardboard wings and thin white gown, waiting. Both of us had unsteady nerves. Neither of us knew that sickness would keep me out of the pageant and out of school for a month. Neither of us knew that Miss Blaine was on the verge of a nervous breakdown that would send her to an institution for a long recovery. A ghastly light from the street filtered in through the dark windows, which at this hour showed me none of the friendly saints whose company I enjoyed on Sunday mornings.
Suddenly Miss Blaine took my hand. “Cold hands,” she observed. “I love little girls with cold hands.”
In that moment she seemed to me a ghost come from the grave to take me with her, acknowledging that I, with my cold hands, was a willing victim. The cold floor, the darkness, the unsettling presence of a woman on the verge of madness—these natural phenomena I erroneously called spooky. I would not call them so today.
Take Joy: A Book for Writers and Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood by Jane Yolen
And here’s a quote from Take Joy:
Even when it is not being taught in the classroom, a children’s book is teaching its young reader something. Ursula Nordstrom, the great editor at Harper, said something instructional to a new writer worried about writing what had already been written. “The children,” she said, “are new, though we are not.”
Everything in a good book (perhaps even in a bad book) is a new truth, a new revelation to a child whose experiences are, as yet, so limited. Therefore writers for children need to be extra careful about preaching, about filling in those empty spaces for the child.
Now, you may be thinking I chose the above quotes very carefully, they’re all so good. But no, I flipped a few pages and picked something easily from each book because they are simply chock-full of quotable quotes, rich ideas and wonderful anecdotes. You may have to track these books down at the library or order them used on Amazon, but however you manage to find them, you’ll be glad you did.
Update: Jennifer of Jean Little Library has two more books to add—Eleanor Cameron's The Green and Burning Tree and E.L. Konigsburg's Talk Talk. Thanks, Jennifer!
Update #2: Catherine of Cath in the Hat has two, too! Celebrating Children's Books, ed. Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye (essays by Lloyd Alexander, Paula Fox, Arnold Lobel, and more) and The Zena Sutherland Lectures, 1983-1992, also edited by Betsy Hearne. Thank you, Catherine!
Update #3: Ruth Donnelly recommends Library of the Early Mind, a documentary about children's literature that includes interviews with the likes of Maurice Sendak and Jack Gantos.