The Art of Truth: Why We Create For ChildrenSeptember 16, 2016
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we create for children, due to this week’s celebration of what would have been Roald Dahl‘s 100th birthday. So many adults and children (including myself!) flooded the internet and Instagram with praise and admiration for Dahl, a man who (according to The New Yorker) was not so much of a good person as a great writer and creator of stories. Roald Dahl’s books touched me personally after having spent most of my middle grade childhood in England. When I eventually returned to America, there was always a slight culture gap that these books helped me to bridge. He is still a hero and someone who inspired me to be a writer for kids. Seeing the immense love for Roald Dahl reminded me of a quote by contemporary children’s author, Mac Barnett, another favorite:
“Too often we tell kids pleasant stories devoid of truth, and stories without truth are not good stories. Our audience deserves more from us. —Mac Barnett”
Why do we write or illustrate for kids? And why is it so important? In my opinion, the best books for children are tellers of truth. Kids crave truth, and all forms of it. The creation of a great children’s book combines story with illustration to convey an idea that touches and inspires a child. When that happens, anything is possible. I personally believe that the most important reading you will do in your entire life is when you are young. It helps to form our perceptions and opinions when our minds are malleable and sponge-like. That is the time that we must read what is true and good and miraculous. I’ve collected a few wonderful examples of the art of truth below to illustrate (pun!) what I mean:
“In this modern world where activity is stressed almost to the point of mania, quietness as a childhood need is too often overlooked. Yet a child’s need for quietness is the same today as it has always been—it may even be greater—for quietness is an essential part of all awareness. In quiet times and sleepy times a child can dwell in thoughts of his own, and in songs and stories of his own.” —Margaret Wise Brown
The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown with new, lovely illustration by Red Cap artist, Christian Robinson. We took a look at this one in Arlo’s Book Club. It’s a remarkable illustrative achievement that couples the innocence of childhood with the harsh lessons of the world. Margaret Wise Brown’s lyrical writing is juxtaposed with the playful, artistic work of Christian Robinson. This is the perfect story to appeal to the emotional maturity of children and to convey the beauty and sadness of the world around us.
Seasons by Blexbolex. This design-heavy book is almanac-esque and may seem like an odd choice for this post, but once you start flipping through the pages, you will see what I mean. Blexbolex uses graphic imagery to convey a tongue-in-cheek definition to words—each correlating to a season. The illustration defines underlying details that mostly children will relate to, using their ability to see such fine details that adults usually gloss over—even words that are seemingly unrelated. For example, in the fall section of the book, Blexbolex’s word is “STUBBORN” and he defines it with an illustration of one lonely, foliage-filled, orange tree in a row of ones that have already lost their leaves.
Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt, with illustration by Isabelle Arsenault. Another one that I recently checked out at the library is the magnificent graphic novel written by Fanny Britt, with illustration by Isabelle Arsenault. Originally written in French, this is the most raw and truthful rendition of what it feels like to be a middle-school aged girl that I have ever seen. Combining vibrant, life-like illustration (most of which is imagined by the young girl in the story) with a story-line that relates love, puberty, body issues, self-esteem, and hope for the future, this is definitely one that needs to be on everyone’s shelves. Bonus: It may also inspire younger kids to pick up classic literature that they haven’t read before!
A Color of His Own by Leo Lionni. Finding oneself is no small feat. In fact, most adults I know are still trying to do it. Leo Lionni (a selection from our Master’s Showcase) created a story that is deceptively simplistic. It speaks philosophical truth on so many different levels, specifically about personal identity. I feel like we need to revisit this book through each milestone we come across, most specifically our college years. I like to take away the simplest lesson: when you feel as if you have no place, rely on those you love to see you through.
“I don’t want to write for adults. I want to write for readers who can perform miracles. Only children perform miracles when they read.” —Astrid Lindgren
Pax by Sara Pennypacker with illustration by Red Cap artist, Jon Klassen. One of the reasons that I spent some of my childhood in England was because my dad was a Special Ops helicopter pilot, flying in the Middle East just after the first Gulf War. People have asked me about how I felt as a kid, with my dad in harm’s way so far away. In reality, I don’t remember much of it. I remember that kids had different accents then I did. I remember that my friends from America and I wrote letters (this was long before email!) and I remember that we had to give my dog, Scout, away. War is heavy and hard and long–but the things that children remember about it are very different from what grown-ups remember. And those things are no less heavy. This beautiful story was just nominated for the National Book Award and is wonderfully complimented by the soft, heartfelt illustration of Jon Klassen. The story is about a boy and his fox, who are separated due to the subtle hint of a war. Our perspective of war is seen through the eyes of the child in one of the most realistic ways I have ever seen. It’s just lovely.
“Growing up I actually, I didn’t have that close of a relationship with books. I actually struggled to read. And, so I was definitely drawn to books with pictures. I just loved that so much could be communicated with just an image.” —Christian Robinson
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex with illustration by Christian Robinson. I’ll finish off with something light-hearted but equally wonderful. This one tells the story of a brand new school and his reservations about what the school year will hold and whether he will be liked by the kids who come through him every day. This one is heartwarming and is perfectly applicable to what lots of kids are going through right now. School is a scary place, man. It’s full of people who are different from us, just like the rest of the world. They have different expectations, goals, likes, and dislikes (and political opinions!) and we must learn to come to terms with that, find peace with it, and thrive.