As a children's writer, I have learned that almost everyone thinks he/she can write a children's book. They are shocked when I tell them that children and teens are the most demanding audience, and the most talented writers I know are juvenile literature authors. After all, what do kids know? In fact, the answer is "Plenty."
As one example, eleven-year-old Jennifer Cohen from Oradell, New Jersey, chose an experiment for her 6th grade science project that revealed something she had not learned from the FDA and the manufacturers of aspartame. Using sound principles and double blind testing she developed and ran her tests like a professional. Her question: What happens to aspartame in diet coke? Upon completion of her experiment a reputable food laboratory performed all the necessary chemical evaluations and presented the results. The laboratory data proved that aspartame breaks down into formaldehyde and DKP (a brain tumor agent) whether refrigerated or at room temperature, Dr. H. J. Roberts, world expert on aspartame, said the experiment was very important adding: "Jennifer deserves two gold stars".
Jennifer is by no means the first individual of her age to jump in and do what adults should have done first. In 1987, thirteen third-grade Brownies in El Segundo founded Tree Musketeers. By the time the sounders were eleven, Tree Musketeers, had planted an urban forest of more than two hundred trees, established El Segundo's first complete recycling center, published a regular environmental education column in the local newspaper, and produced and aired a television quiz show about the environment. Last November, John Denver presented one of the original founders, Tara Church, with the Windstar Youth Award. (Awareness ). The award was one of dozens collected by Tree Musketeers as a group or to its individual members.
Meanwhile, in 1989, fourth grader Melissa Poe started Kids For A Clean Environment (Kids F.A.C.E.) at her school. By 1993, Kids F.A.C.E. had 110,000 members from all over the nation and several foreign countries all planting trees, recycling, and engaged in other projects that benefit the local or global environment.
Clearly, many kids have great minds, and their dream can reach well beyond the achievements of the adults they know. What fiction can publishers possible offer such young people to read? What authors have enough understanding of an respect for them to create juvenile literature appropriate for them
That was precisely the question in the mind of another remarkable girl S. E. Hinton (Susan). She wrote The Outsiders at 17 "so I would have something to read." Indeed, in 1967, contemporary young adult fiction tended to feature improbable characters living improbable lives "Mary-Jane-Goes-to-the-Prom junk" in Hinton's words. Her novel launched an unprecedented realism in young adult fiction.
On August 9, at the Century Plaza Hotel, I was looking forward to hearing S. E. Hinton lecture at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference. At these annual conferences, I have met many authors who create literature worthy of great young minds.
Hinton was scheduled to speak about the use of the subconscious in fiction. Well-chosen for the task, she belongs to the special breed of juvenile writers who begin with uncompromising observation of the world around them, then dredge up their novels from deep within. By ripping themselves open and spilling their guts into their characters and plots, certain authors of juvenile literature offer heart-wrenching candor and insight about people and life. Although they always offer hope and inspiration, they don't hesitate to set harsh truths, complex issues, and ugly human traits. Before young readers. At the annual conferences, authors such as Avi, Judy Blume, M. E. Kerr, Patrician MacLachlan, and Paula Danzinger (also featured this year) share the personal experience that gives birth to their characters and plots.
Unfortunately, participants were reminded that authors who write about the experience and emotions of others live through painful experience themselves. Due to the death of her sister, Hinton canceled her appearance. Hinton followed The Outsiders with a series of novels about the struggles of boys on the edges. Alienated or separated from their parents, Hinton's characters speak to boys not represented by the Ozzie and Harriet families so prevalent in juvenile literature, and allow them to read about a world that resembles their own.
Meanwhile, author Judy Blume was bringing the real world into juvenile literature. By writing with uncensored candor, lets her readers read about themselves. Last year at the SCBWI conference, I watched Blume crumble into tears as she recounted the moment she held her typewriter over the edge of a cliff, intending to pitch the typewriter and with it her career. Wounded by a reviewer's comment about an element in one of her books, she explained to me after the lecture that the element had been taken from her own experience. By exposing her vulnerable underside in the book, and in effect, to the reviewer's knife, she had taken the wound in her soul. As she broke up periodically with the depth of the feelings she expressed in her speech, it wasn't hard to understand why her characters are so painfully and touchingly honest, so believable they become friends, or why I know myself and my peers so much better after finishing one of her books. Blume puts her heart on the line, as do many of the great juvenile authors.
Each year at the conference, I learn more about writing. Beyond writing, though, I expect to learn more about myself, people, and the world from more than a dozen award-winning authors who share those same elements as they open their hearts to young readers.
To reach Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, call 818/888-8760.
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