Kids Are Smart
Roger Sutton (Hornbook editor and all-around curmudgeonly kidlit pundit) has stated words to the effect that one of the issues he frequently sees with manuscripts from aspiring writers is adults thinking children’s literature is a vehicle for telling kids how they should behave.
I have to agree. You often see the above in the guise of the wise adult character sagely giving advice to the teen protagonist, or—if the teen won’t listen to the wise adult—as a cautionary tale. (Quick survey: Did you ever read a so-called cautionary tale as a teenager and think, “Wow, I’d better never do that!”…? Me neither. For most kids, those things are double-dog dares.) This mindset also implies that the adult is somehow automatically more intelligent than the kid. In my experience, this is unlikely.
Because kids are smart.
And sometimes, those same aspiring writers (if they happen to be among your friends or in your critter group) may offer critiques of your MG or YA project based on what they think kids “need to hear.”
Which may be the worst reason ever to write a book.
Because the only kids you really have license to tell what to do are your own kids. (And even then, that stuff can totally backfire on you. Trust me.)
Because none of us have been tapped on the shoulder by the universe with a clear message along the lines of: “Go forth and tell kids they should practice chastity, clean their room, and not do drugs…” Nope… your readers will smell that bullshit a mile away and run for the hills. And then they’ll cease to be your readers.
Because kids are smart.
Because telling someone to do something—and I include myself in the definition of “someone”—is the least best way of motivating them to do it.
Because fundamentally, all that kids really need in their literature are truth and hope.
The truth is there are as many different types of kids as there are kids. The truth is we are all individuals. The truth is there is no single “right” way. The truth is that fitting into the norm is not—nor should it ever be—the overriding goal of growing up.
There are other truths about life—hard truths—which you may or may not decide to include in your work, depending on the age and experience of the intended reader. That’s up to you. But even if your work does contain some seriously dark, hard truths, kids still need the small hope that if they’re true to themselves and what they believe in, there’s at least the possibility… the potential… that things might work out eventually.
So give them the truth, sure. At least, some of it. And give them at least a glimmer of hope.
And it’s fine to challenge them to think about difficult issues.
But don’t tell them what to think about them. That’s the easy way out. And it never works.
Because kids are smart.
I recently put something out into the universe which is a real longshot. (What we call “putting hope in the mail” around here, dating all the way back to when we’d put actual stuff in the actual mailbox.) It’s not a manuscript. Or even a query. It’s more like a query to a query. And as I said, it’s a very low-probability thing… maybe a half-percent prospect. At best.
And I’m perfectly okay with that. Because once in a while, taking a flyer on something can lift you up a little. Give you a different vantage point. Increase your perspective.
In life there are the sure things, the reasonable opportunities, and the longshots. We need to engage with all three of these, for different reasons.
And, of course, there are the failures.
Like most of us, I’ve experienced approximately seventeen zillion failures. But the funny thing is, I don’t really remember them. But I DO remember the miniscule percentage of longshots which I’ve actually made. Including the literal ones…
Once, when our younger son was maybe seven or eight, he and I were casually shooting baskets in our driveway when it turned into a “Hey Dad, can you do THAT?” game. At some point he had me shoot with my back against the railing which separates our driveway from the hillside (preventing someone from accidentally going off the driveway and ending up at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of feet below). It was a longshot—definite three-point territory—but I got lucky and made it. Was this enough for him to call it good? Not even. He had me move further away along the railing—to half-court territory—then added some serious spice: he wanted me to balance on top of the railing and make a jump shot as I was leaping off. Now, just standing on the top rail for more than a second or two—with my back to the hillside below—was difficult. Sinking a half-court shot jumper from there? Forget about it. But I dutifully climbed up on the railing and flailed around as I tried not to fall backwards and break my ass, then jumped off and heaved the ball at the top of my arc. And made it. He immediately made a beeline for the house, yelling all the way. “Hey Mom… Mom! You won’t believe what Dad just did…!”
I’ve missed thousands of basketball shots. But who cares? I’ll always remember that one.
None of which means we shouldn’t focus primarily on the more realistic opportunities. (After all, buying lottery tickets is a really bad way to pay the rent.) And I certainly do. Along with that longshot, I also queried on a non-fiction piece I felt I had at least a realistic possibility of getting.
And—the hardest part of all—after I sent those queries, I did my best to forget about them and get to work on something else.
It’s a cliché, yet completely true: You will miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take. And yes, you might miss most of the ones you do take, but at least you’re out there, trying, and you have a non-zero possibility of success.
And what keeps me going is my corollary to the above: If you take enough longshots, sooner or later you’re going to make one.
And when you make one, all the misses just fade away.
But beyond all that, once in a while you just need to swing for the fences for reasons having nothing to do with actual success or failure. It’s deeper than that, verging on the topic of mental health. Artistic health. Maybe even spiritual health.
Because we need to occasionally remind ourselves that there’s a big world out there—bigger than you, bigger than me, and bigger than our usual day-to-day achievements.
Because everyone has dreams. But not everyone takes the steps necessary to explore even the possibility of those dreams coming true. And taking those steps pays off for everyone who does it, not just those who succeed.
Because putting your work—your art—your self—out there is the prime generator of one of the most important things in our world. Yup, the h-word.
So today—an hour or so ago, as I write this—I got a couple of email replies. One was from the editor I’d queried about the article, basically saying Sure, sounds good, let’s do it! And I thought, Cool—this’ll keep me in coffee and drumsticks for a while. And the other email was from the person I’d queried about the query. And she basically said, Sure, let’s give this a shot. It’s a longshot, but let’s try! And I thought, Cool, that half-percent chance is now a one-percent chance.
And then I pushed it out of my mind and got back to the revisions I’m doing on a manuscript. But now, riding on my shoulder as I work—so small I don’t dare even look at it lest it disappear entirely—is a tiny speck.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.