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Too Good for Grown Ups: On the Art of Writing for Children

Posted on Thu, May 1 2014 9:00 am by Anne Ursu

From "The Real Boy"

The Loft was tremendously fortunate to have Anne Ursu as a keynote speaker at this year's Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference, which took place April 25-27, 2014. Her speech so inspired attendees that we asked Anne to share the text in hopes of carrying forward the conversations kindled at the conference. Read an excerpt from Anne's speech below, or use the link at the bottom of the page to enjoy it in its entirety (we strongly recommend this second option).

 

My characters need books. For Hazel, books feed and nurture her hungry imagination, an imagination no one else feeds, let alone sees as a virtue. They show her a better world—even if it is an imaginary one. And they assure her that there is a place in the world for imaginative girls. For awkward Oscar, who spends most of his time grinding herbs in the magician’s cellar, and whose only friends are cats, books show him the wonders of the world as it is, the wide one outside his cellar that he believes he doesn’t belong in. The pages of books promise him knowledge, understanding, mastery. Both kids need books to help them navigate and understand, to feed their hungry, growing selves, and to tuck themselves into at night.

My protagonists need books—yes because I needed them so badly at that age. But also because all kids do.

This is the age where the world gets a little bigger every day, when your mind is still taking in everything it can, when adults stop shielding the hard things from you. Books are a small place to explore a big world. They are personal—for the first time, they are yours—and they are profound. They reflect and assure, they project and excite. And kids love them for it. They love them with their whole being.         

People ask me why I write for kids. And there are many reasons: grown-ups are boring. I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t know how to do anything else. But mostly, I write for kids because nobody loves a book like a kid loves a book. They need them, and you can tell that by the way they take them into their whole being, absorb them like the blob.

The books [my son] Dash and I read are entirely different. Though I loved super heroes too (even though I am a girl and apparently we only like unicorns and feelings), for books I grew up on Ramona, Anne of Green Gables, The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time. He’s growing up on Ricky Ricotta, Frankie Pickle, Amulet, Spiderman, and Bone—and, despite my best efforts, books about Star Wars prequels.

He really loves graphic novels, and now that’s mostly what he reads. I’ve heard people disparage them as not “real” reading, but it’s certainly real for him. Scientists are theorizing that it’s not that people with autism can’t read facial expressions, it’s that they perceive all of the rapid minute alterations in faces that most people can’t see, and then get overwhelmed. But in a graphic novel nobody’s face moves. He can experience faces, perfectly still.

Kids need books. When I talk to classrooms full of kids, each of them has a different favorite book, one they’ve read to pieces, one they’ve absorbed and internalized.

Kids need all kinds of books. They need to be held and transported and understood and entertained, sometimes all at once. They need stories of all kinds.

They need your book.

 

Read the full text of Anne's keynote speech.

 

Anne Ursu is the author of several middle-grade fantasies including Breadcrumbs, which was named a Best Book of 2011 by Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Amazon.com. Her most recent book, The Real Boy, is an Indie Next Pick and was on the 2013 National Book Award longlist. Anne teaches at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and the Highlights Foundation. She is the recipient of the 2013 McKnight Award in Children’s Literature.