I write a lot of stuff — poetry, journalism, features, fiction, scholarly work, creative nonfiction and more.
You know what sounds easy? Writing children’s books. My favorites feature sing-songy rhyming stuff, written in meter, because patterns like rhyme and meter help kids learn to read, and they’re fun to share, too. I love poring over storybooks with my kids, especially when I do the voices. Each time the second half of a rhyming pair shows up, I put my finger under it and let my son figure out what it is, and we both have a lot of fun watching him learn to read in real time.
If you don’t write poetry yourself, here’s something you may not know about it: Rhyming is easy. You don’t even have to do the work of it; there are online rhyming dictionaries that offer dozens of possibilities. Choosing a rhyme gives you something to write toward, and in the worst poetry, things get very predictable very quickly.
So naturally I presumed writing a children’s book would be a cinch … until I sat down to do it.
The first problem is deciding what to write about. When I write a poem, this step doesn’t exist; I just write whatever comes to mind and let the subject find me. Once I arrive at the subject, I can suss it out and develop it and trim away anything that doesn’t suit it.
In journalism, too, the subject usually just presents itself. Sometimes it’s on the calendar, like an Alderman meeting or an election filing. There’s no need to scramble for ideas.
It’s a little hard for a grown woman to imagine what a kid might like to read. When you visit a library or bookstore, the possibilities seem endless, but a closer inspection reveals that most books try to teach kids a moral lesson of some sort. I have no interest in moralizing to kids; I’d prefer to have fun with words and share my pleasure in language with them.
But it did seem as though a message or theme might make a good potential starting point. (Spoiler alert: This thinking would prove to be the fatal error in my project.) I thought about what young readers might need to know or what they may feel concerned about, and in the process some of my own childhood worries came to mind.
We think of kids as being carefree. They’re not. If you’ll recall, the things that scared and worried you when you were five were not less traumatic than your taxes or house payment or weird mole is today.
I consulted the expert — my son.
“What scares you?” I asked him.
He answered immediately: “The dark.”
The mother in me, and the former six-year-old in me, sympathized. The writer in me was disappointed at what seemed like an obvious answer.
“What about the dark scares you?” I queried.
“I think there might be monsters,” he said.
Mom: <tinkly sound of heart shattering into a million pieces>.
I decided to write about this, and I like what I came up with: a story about all of the delightful things that might be hiding in a darkened room — not monsters at all, unless they’re hilarious and sweet-natured tickle-monsters who wait until you’re sleeping to try on all your clothes.
This project is one that I’m really interested in, unlike some previous efforts. (You may recall last week’s adult-coloring-book debacle.)
What I know about writing is that our first efforts are usually not our best ones. We learn as we go, and maybe we develop a kind of writing muscle that makes us stronger and faster for future attempts.
Ultimately, I’m going to write a good children’s book, and I’m going to get it published. Strangely enough, my attempts this week were so frustrating and fruitless that I know I must be onto something.