(The nice people at 49th Shelf asked me to contribute a blog post for the site, and I decided to write about the experience of publishing my first book aimed at kids. Here’s a excerpt. You can read the whole thing here.)
The spot where I stare idly at my computer (or at the street below)
Like many people who have children and also write for a living, I’ve long imagined writing something that my own kids would read (and, I dared to hope, enjoy). I know they suspect I sit and stare idly at my computer screen all day long, so tangible evidence of my labour in a medium they could appreciate would be welcome. I’ve been doing this for too long to think writing a book—for children or anyone else—would actually be easy, but I did venture to hope that a kids’ book would take less time and be different in intensity from writing for adults. Kind of like hitting the refresh button between other projects.
I was wrong on almost all counts. Writing for children is hard. It’s intense. And depending on what it is you’re writing, can take just as long as any adult book.
My idea with What’s for Lunch? was to use the lens of school lunch around the world as a way to look at the complexity of the international food system. I would take this common experience kids have all over the world and through it explore tough global issues like poverty, hunger, the obesity epidemic, sustainable agriculture and fast food culture. I knew it would require a light touch, a sense of fun and careful use of language and ideas. I knew, too, that I’d have to do a lot of research. But what I found was that culling that research and bringing it into focus for children was a task requiring not just the steak knife I’m accustomed to using to make cuts, but also a machete. I would cut and filter, then cut and filter some more—honing the research down to the barest of bones, as precise and relevant as possible.
I learned, too, that the ability to move between fun anecdote and big concept is a tightrope—lean one way and the book becomes dull; the other and it’s a wackadoodle circus that fails to touch on the important issues. Add to that the fact that children’s authors need to have carefully tuned antennae for cultural bias (do the French really love stinky cheese or is that just a Gallophobe stereotype?), and the tightrope grows ever more tricky.
But even while trying to negotiate this new balancing act, there was one thing that turned out as I hoped. Writing for children did indeed act as a mental refresh button for me—as both writer and parent. It forced me to think more carefully about what we expect of children as readers and learners. I began to realize more fully how we often fail to give kids the credit they deserve for being wise and insightful, able to grasp multiple levels of an idea at the same time.