Today, some excerpts from an essay by C.S. Lewis entitled, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” Lewis argues against sentimental hogwash invented to satisfy some generic child’s supposed desires, and instead proposes that a good book for children is a good book for adults.
“I think there are three ways in which those who write for children may approach their work; two good ways and one that is generally a bad way.”
“I came to know of the bad way quite recently and from two unconscious witnesses. One was a lady who sent me the MS of a story she had written in which a fairy placed at a child’s disposal a wonderful gadget. I say ‘gadget’ because it was not a magic ring or hat or cloak or any such traditional matter. It was a machine, a thing of taps and handles and buttons you could press. You could press one and get an ice cream, another and get a live puppy, and so forth. I had to tell the author honestly that I didn’t much care for that sort of thing. She replied ‘No more do I, it bores me to distraction. But it is what the modern child wants.’
My other bit of evidence was this. 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…”
“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…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.”
I utterly agree with Lewis: if a picture book written for even the youngest child captures my fancy, it’s good enough for children; if I find it dull, insipid, overly didactic, poorly illustrated…it is not worth sharing with a child. The gems are out there to be found!