The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.
~ C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”
I have sometimes wondered whether writing for children might be more difficult than writing for adults. When it comes to a story, children either like it or they do not. They do not evaluate the author’s diction, or depth of characterization, or thematic complexity, they simply respond. Childlike discernment is unrefined (although not necessarily inaccurate). The most successful children’s stories are among some of the best stories I have read, even as an adult, and often they have as much or more power than some of the best adult literature. For one thing, they seem to have more clarity and focus. The author has to know exactly what his story is and how he wants to say it.
[The format of children’s literature] compels you to throw all the force of the book into what was done and said. It checks what a kind, but discerning critic called ‘the expository demon’ in me. It also imposes certain very fruitful necessities about length.
Among picture books I read as a child that I still now enjoy, there are Moonhorse by Mary Pope Osborne, and Something from Nothing and Grandma and the Pirates by Phoebe Gilman (the latter rather silly, in a good way). Among so-called “young adult” fiction, there are the Wrinkle in Time series by Madeline L’Engle, the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, Perloo the Bold by Avi, Kävik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, and perhaps the whole collected works of Beverly Cleary. Not to mention a host of illustrated retellings of myths, legends, and classic literature for children, such as Saint George and the Dragon retold by Margaret Hodges, with art by Trina Schart Hyman, and the beautiful adaptation of George MacDonald’s Little Daylight that was one of the first true fairy stories I remember reading. And also, of course, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
Lewis married late in life and had no children of his own, and yet this one children’s series of his has proved one of the most popular among children and one of the most critically acclaimed among adults. The former distinction is perhaps the more important. Lewis, like his literary mentor George MacDonald, never claimed to be writing exclusively for children. Rather, they both wrote stories that they themselves would enjoy, both as adults and as children. And I don’t mean the disgusting Hollywood trend of trying to appeal to both groups by slipping sexual innuendo and pop culture references into supposedly kids’ movies, as if what parents really want when watching a movie with their children is vulgarity and knowing winks about Starbucks or popular action movies. I mean…well, why don’t we let Professor Lewis himself explain what I mean, since I mean what he says. His 1966 essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” is equally as useful for writers of fantasy (though not only those) as Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.”
Two of the ways Lewis knows about are good, and one is bad. Children will always be ill-served by a story that tries to give them what it thinks they want, when the author clearly has no interest in that thing themselves. Lewis illustrates the problem of this approach with an anecdote:
In my own first story I had described at length what I thought a rather fine high tea given by a hospitable faun to the little girl who was my heroine. A man, who has children of his own, said, “Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, ‘That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.’” In reality, however, I myself like eating and drinking. I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.
If you are going to write a story, you must want to tell that story in particular. There must be something you want to say to and experience with readers. Any book is a journey which the author and reader both take together; sometimes the author is a proper guide, revealing to the reader mysteries which only he has the privilege of knowing, while other times you feel that an author is discovering the story barely a step ahead of the reader. Most crucially, however, both parties must enjoy the story, the telling and the reading.
The first of the two good ways Lewis believes a children’s book can develop is when it grows out of a story that has been told by the author to a particular child. He says:
This is the way of Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, and Tolkien… It resembles the first [bad] way because you are certainly trying to give that child what it wants. But then you are dealing with a concrete person, this child who, of course, differs from all other children. There is no question of “children” conceived as a strange species whose habits you have “made up” like an anthropologist or a commercial traveler. Nor, I suspect, would it be possible, thus face to face, to regale the child with things calculated to please it but regarded by yourself with indifference or contempt. The child, I am certain, would see through that. In any personal relation the two participants modify each other. You would become slightly different because you were talking to a child and the child would become slightly different because it was being talked to by an adult. A community, a composite personality, is created and out of that the story grows.
The second of the good ways, the third that Lewis discusses overall, is when a children’s story is simply the best format for what the author wants to say.
The third way, which is the only one I could ever use myself, consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form. This method could apply to other kinds of children’s literature besides stories, I have been told that Arthur Mee never met a child and never wished to: it was, from his point of view, a bit of luck that boys liked reading what he liked writing. This anecdote may be untrue in fact but it illustrates my meaning.
Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, at any age. I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.
This final way is probably the best way, in my opinion and, it seems, in Lewis’. We also both find ourselves most suited to writing the genre of fantasy, which, as it happens, is an excellent one for children’s stories. In fact, here in the essay Lewis finds himself needing to defend against the assumption that fantasy and fairy stories are “childish” and that the only proper literature is that which is aimed squarely at adults. His defense consists of three points, which I shall quote in full.
1. I reply with a tu quoque. Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
2. The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two. But if I had to lose the taste for lemon-squash before I acquired the taste for hock, that would not be growth but simple change. I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next. In reality, the case is stronger and more complicated than this. I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists, for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood; being now able to put more in, of course I get more out. But I do not here stress that point. Even if it were merely a taste for grown-up literature added to an unchanged taste for children’s literature, addition would still be entitled to the name “growth,” and the process of merely dropping one parcel when you pick up another would not. It is, of course, true that the process of growing does, incidentally and unfortunately, involve some more losses. But that is not the essence of growth, certainly not what makes growth admirable or desirable. If it were, if to drop parcels and to leave stations behind were the essence and virtue of growth, why should we stop at the adult? Why should not senile be equally a term of approval? Why are we not to be congratulated on losing our teeth and hair? Some critics seem to confuse growth with the cost of growth and also to wish to make that cost far higher than, in nature, it need be.
3. The whole association of fairy tale and fantasy with childhood is local and accidental…in most places and times, the fairy tale has not been specially made for, nor exclusively enjoyed by, children. It has gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses. In fact, many children do not like this kind of book, just as many children do not like horsehair sofas: and many adults do like it, just as many adults like rocking chairs. And those who do like it, whether young or old, probably like it for the same reason. And none of us can say with any certainty what that reason is.
The two theories about fairy stories that Lewis thinks of most often are those of Tolkien and psychologist Carl Jung.
According to Tolkien the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a “subcreator”; not, as they love to say now, making a “comment upon life” but making, so far as possible, a subordinate world of his own. Since, in Tolkien’s view, this is one of man’s proper functions, delight naturally arises whenever it is successfully performed. For Jung, fairy tale liberates Archetypes which dwell in the collective unconscious, and when we read a good fairy tale we are obeying the old precept “Know thyself.” I would venture to add to this…one feature in it: I mean, the presence of beings other than human which yet behave, in varying degrees, humanly: the giants and dwarfs and talking beasts. I believe these to be at least…an admirable hieroglyphic which conveys psychology, types of character, more briefly than novelistic presentation and to readers whom novelistic presentation could not yet reach. Consider Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows—that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness. The child who has once met Mr Badger has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way.
Indeed the same readers will probably read both his fantastic ‘juveniles’ and his fantastic stories for adults. For I need not remind such an audience as this that the neat sorting-out of books into age-groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.
True words. I loved Lewis’ Narnia stories as a child, as a teenager I graduated to his apologetic works, and as an adult finally read his science-fiction/fantasy Space Trilogy. All three I continue to read and remember now, with ever-increasing enjoyment and appreciation. Same with the children’s and young adult books I named at the beginning of this article – most I have reread years after first loving them, and I love them still. (Ah, one exception is the Wrinkle in Time series, which I have not read since 5th grade, but are sitting on my bookshelf beckoning me. Soon I think I shall cave in and return to them, and I don’t think they shall disappoint.) Another special mention goes to Rosemary Sutcliff, whose “young adult” novels I first read eagerly as an early teenager, and whose more adult-oriented Sword at Sunset I later sought out, hoping it would contain the same elements I loved about her “younger” fiction; for the most part it did.
Perhaps even more interesting are his comments about children’s stories that have the power to scare. The early Disney films were fairy tales that certainly had elements meant to scare children: witness the donkey transformation scenes in Pinocchio, the evil stepmother in Snow White, or (my favorite) the witch Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. In such stories, I think this effect was good. However, it must not be assumed that every children’s story should frighten them, or in just any kind of way.
Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense…Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.
The other fears—the phobias—are a different matter. I do not believe one can control them by literary means. We seem to bring them into the world with us ready made. No doubt the particular image on which the child’s terror is fixed can sometimes be traced to a book. But is that the source, or only the occasion, of the fear? If he had been spared that image, would not some other, quite unpredictable by you, have had the same effect? Chesterton has told us of a boy who was more afraid of the Albert Memorial than anything else in the world. I know a man whose great childhood terror was the India paper edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica—for a reason I defy you to guess. And I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St George, or any bright champion in armor, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.
I will even go further. If I could have escaped all my own night-fears at the price of never having known “faerie,” would I now be the gainer by that bargain? I am not speaking carelessly. The fears were very bad. But I think the price would have been too high.
And finally, the issue of morals. In addition to rejecting the question “What do children want?” as a legitimate way to start writing a children’s story, Lewis also rejects the question “What do children need?”
Not because I don’t like stories to have a moral: certainly not because I think children dislike a moral. Rather because I feel sure that the question “What do modern children need?” will not lead you to a good moral. If we ask that question we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask “What moral do I need?” for I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age.
It is my opinion that if a person attempts to write a children’s story that only “gives them what they want” (that is, what that person thinks children want), without it being something that they themselves also want in story form, they are bound to be mistaken, or dangerous, or both. If they write something which is harmless but boring, children aren’t likely to read it and little good will come if they do. It is also possible to write something which children do like, but only because it appeals to baser human nature and panders to the lowest common denominator (in kids’ movies, this is exampled by fart jokes, much slapstick violence, rude catch-phrases, and the like). Thus the children may fall under an unhealthy literary influence, being as everything they experience is an education in values.
But it is better not to ask the question at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children’s story without a moral had better do so, that is, if he is going to write children’s stories at all. The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.
Indeed everything in the story should arise from the whole cast of the author’s mind. We must write for children out of those elements in our own imagination which we share with children: differing from our child readers not by any less, or less serious, interest in the things we handle, but by the fact that we have other interests which children would not share with us.
I wholeheartedly encourage you to read the entirety of Lewis’ essay. I have excerpted much of it, but what I have not excerpted is still useful, including his own defense of fairy stories as exceptional literature. You can download the essay at the first link here.