Novelists these days just can't seem stick to the important stuff -- they write great big grown-up books on great big grown-up subjects and give all appearances of having heeded St. Paul's advice to put away childish things. Then --like an irrepressible case of the giggles at some solemn occasion -- out pops some bit of whimsy, some joyful riff on language, some bit of fantasy and imagination running wild and unbridled. C. S. Lewis, who had a whole, serious life as a scholar and critic, once said, "If they won't write the books I want to read, then I'll have to do it myself." He then went on to write the Narnia books, which have now been read by several generations of children.
So you literati who want to be totally au courant with the latest from our literary icons should know that the latest book from Margaret Atwood is not the dystopian Oryx and Crake, but a rollicking tale called Rude Ramsay and The Roaring Radishes (illustrated by Dusan Petricic). After the grim, imagined, reality of Oryx it must have been a resplendent respite and radical relief to write this really radiant, ravishing and refulgent story. And if you're wondering why I'm writing on such a roll of alliteration then you probably haven't read the book yet. Here is a sample:
"Residing with Rude Ramsay, who was red-haired, were his revolting relatives, Ron, Rollo, and Ruby. They were rotund but robust, and when not regaling themselves with rum, they relaxed in their recliners, replaying reams of retro rock-n-'roll records, relentlessly. This could be rigorous."
Atwood is, of course, the author of many, many books for adults, as well as four other children's books, Anna's Pet (with Joyce Barkhouse), Up in the Tree, For the Birds, and Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut. It's good to know that she knows how to kick back and have fun.
Of course, she's not the first, or the last Canadian writer to find an affinity for entertaining young readers. Dennis Lee composes fully adult verse (Civil Elegies and Un, for example) but is more likely to find readers of the besotted, drooling type with his classic Alligator Pie, or the more recent Garbage Delight. The late distinguished novelist Matt Cohen had a secret second literary life, writing books such as The Kid Line and Night Cars as Teddy Jam. Vancouver writer Madeleine Thien followed up her critically acclaimed breakout book of stories Simple Recipes by writing the text for a children's picture book called The Chinese Violin. And W.H. New, the Vancouver poet and scholar, editor of the comprehensive Encyclopedia of Canadian Literature, also writes truly delightful verse for young children.
Anyone who has endured the nightly ritual of reading to children is grateful to find kidlit that is well-written. There may be a perception that it's easier to write for children, but in fact the work is held up to greater scrutiny. How many other books are you liable to read aloud dozens and dozens of times, sometimes in a single evening?
Bill Richardson, who has proved himself no slouch at writing for adults -- his Bachelor Brothers Bed and Breakfast books are true Canadian classics -- has in recent years turned his hand to writing for children. He has written a young-adult novel called After Hamelin, and three picture books -- Sally Dog Little, But If They Do and Sally Dog Little: Undercover Agent -- that stand up to the repeated reading test. Asked what he thought the difference between writing for adults and children was, he replied, "Writing a picture book text is like writing a picture book text as near as I can tell. It isn't like anything else. For me, it's about having fun, trying to write well with the needs of both kids and adult readers -- the ones who are buying the book and reading the book aloud -- in mind. If adults don't find it engaging, what's the point?"
Logical as this argument may be, it remains a fact that a lot of literature written for children is dull, dull, dull.
But with all the adults now reading the Harry Potter books, why not regress just a little further and reach for a nice picture book? Or, as Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean term their latest creation for children, The Wolves in the Walls, "a graphic novel for children." That would seem to be an entirely different sort of creature from a children's picture book. For one thing the phrasing privileges the text and the images equally; but it also seems to hint at the fact that there is something satisfying here for adults.
The Wolves in the Walls does fantastically innovative things with illustration -- mixing painting and digitally-altered photography with drawing. And the story is a satisfying one to read because not only does good triumph over evil, but cleverness triumphs over wickedness, bravery over commonsense and loyalty over pragmatism. How often can you get that sense of catharsis and satisfaction from a "grown-up" book?
Gaiman has gained huge popularity for his recent books for adults, American Gods and Neverwhere, but is equally popular with young readers, as the stunning sales of his young-adult novel Coraline proved last year. In an online interview with newsarama.com, Gaiman explains the significant differences for him between writing for children and writing for adults:
"One of the things I love about children's fiction is you can simply make things happen.... Writing adult fiction is harder -- you're dealing with suspension of disbelief. And what will leave one person really happy, and feeling that everything you've written is utterly true will leave the person next to her shaking his head at the pitiful way you've tried to make him believe in junkie leprachauns."
Maybe the reason these writers are drawn to writing for children is based on their willingness to suspend disbelief, to go along with the joke, to allow themselves to wonder. If wolves really did come out of the walls, what would you do? Good writing is good writing is good writing. And you don't have to be a child to recognize it.
(This article originally published in 2003).