Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thoughts on being a writer for children and young adults



I’m Black A Children’s Writer and I’m Proud!

Several years ago I went to speak to the head of the Creative Writing Programme at my local university, who had just started offering a PhD in Creative Writing. At the time I was shortlisted for a national book award (and already had a couple of others under my belt), had an MA in Creative Writing and a good track record.
After listening to my proposal he informed me of the application requirements, including the need to provide a writing sample. It was June, from memory, with the applications not opening until the November. ‘You’d better start working on the writing sample now to make it good enough,’ he said. ‘After all, you’re only a children’s writer.’ Suffice to say, I did not bother to apply.

I’m not alone in facing this kind of prejudice against those of us who choose to write for children and young adults – this attitude that we are somehow a lesser species is a familiar prickle in the heel of most of us. The implication is that writing for the young is easier, a cop-out as a ‘real’ writer, a nice little hobby in a simple-minded life.
 
Not only do I find this attitude insulting and ill-informed, but I also really don’t understand it. Adult readers are only out there in the world because they once were children and young adult readers. The reading they partook in during their childhood and impressionable teenage years have either switched on their love of books and words – of story – or have turned them off.

It’s no mean feat to create a life-long reader. As a parent I know how hard it is to keep kids reading through their teenage years. There are lots of distractions, not least their raging hormones! But if they are readers, then shouldn’t we be providing them with the best writing that we can, with stories that challenge them to think harder, and to look around at what is happening in the world (or neighbourhoods or families)?

The books I read in my childhood, teens and twenties helped to shape me – morally, ethically and imaginatively. They taught me things beyond the confines of my small-town existence. They opened up my world. Isn’t this what we want for our kids? For all children?

All the writers I know who specialise in children and YA fare are incredibly thoughtful people – and skilled writers. They want their books to communicate big and/or new ideas, and all of them care deeply about how their work will impact on their readers. It sure as hell ain’t about the money, glory or the fame (all of which are meted out in starvation portions.)

I’ve seen the way that story can transform young people’s lives. For the last few years I’ve been involved with an organisation that works with youth at risk, and have written two programmes for them based around the concept of bibliotherapy – using story (two of my YA novels) to engage young people in a discussion about their own lives and the issues they are facing, and to offer them life skills to make constructive long term change. It’s an incredibly powerful medium – offering the safety of discussion about character’s behaviour and exploits, which then leads on to an exploration of their own.

The facilitators who run the programmes feed back that they’ve never seen kids talk so much, and want to talk so much – and, for many, sit still long enough to do so! Kids who’ve bunked school for weeks will sit and listen as they’re read to, and then harass facilitators to tell them what is going to happen next! They have taken the books home and asked their families to read them – one girl, for instance, saying ‘I need to show this to my step-mum, coz it explains my life...’  We’ve seen tremendous successes from the programmes and it’s due, in no small part, to human beings innate love of story. It’s how we learn about the world. It’s how we learn to express ourselves and fit into a social group. To empathise and question. To learn about our history. To challenge assumptions. To recognise right from wrong.

It’s no coincidence that when corrupt regimes want to control the actions and behaviour of the general public they lock up all the writers and burn all the books. Words have power – and the younger the reader we can serve them up to, the more powerful and engaged in their world and community they’ll become.

So, it seems to me, children and YA writers are, in fact, the most important of all writers – because they help to shape the next generation by opening up their hearts and minds.

As for the PhD? No thanks. I’d rather spend my time talking through my writing to the people who matter most... the up and coming generation.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Interested in community empowerment?

Check out my latest Kapiti Independent News column at Mandy Hager's Column - all about community empowerment, with a wonderful example from St Kilda's, Melbourne, Australia.