Today, John Grisham’s first children’s book is being released: Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. Though not speculative fiction, this got me thinking about “grown-up” writers who turn to writing books for kids.
Of course, as Joni pointed out, “Lots of us have either day jobs that involve writing for adults or have done other books, often nonfiction, for adults first.” Then there are those authors of the past who were writing for adults, but whose books are now often read by children or teenagers: Mark Twain, Jules Verne, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Ursula Le Guin would fit this category, I believe.
But I’m really thinking about the famous names today, so let’s look at a few of them.
You can see my complete review of Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer (Dutton) at the New York Journal of Books. The short review is, good idea, mediocre book. It wouldn’t have sold if one of us wrote it. I don’t blame the author for this so much as the publishing process, and the public who will no doubt buy the book anyway, based on his name. I can’t guess why he decided to try writing for kids, but I can guess why this effort (in my opinion) failed — he wrote it too much like one of his adult books, just with a kid main character.
I also took a look at one of Clive Cussler’s books for children, The Adventures of Vin Fiz (Philomel, 2006). The jacket flap claims this is in “the classic tradition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” The book does have a “classic” feel, if by classic you mean old-fashioned, with bland kid characters, lots of telling rather than showing, and a cheerfully condescending adult narrator’s voice. Maybe Cussler wanted to re-create a “wholesome” book like the ones he loved as a child, or maybe he just didn’t know that standards of children’s literature have changed. Either way, I doubt this book would have sold without the famous name. The story, about kids who get an enchanted box that can transform any toy into the real thing, has been done before — and better. It’s sad, because this “true life adventurer” who has “discovered more than 60 sunken ships” surely has a more exciting tale to tell.
Lest you think I’m simply jealous and snarky, I’d better look at some (in my opinion) successes. James Patterson, the biggest name in publishing, was recently named author of the year by the Children’s Choice Book Awards. His Maximum Ride series (Little, Brown) about kids who are 2% bird is an innovative concept, and the books deserve their place on the best-seller list. I just started reading The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, which is a definite page turner. It opens with the main character describing how, when he was three, his parents were murdered by a vicious alien. This man does not talk down to kids! He has a new Witch & Wizard series, and I’m willing to bet this isn’t some cheap imitation of a classic.
Neil Gaiman is another author who seems to imbue each of his books with magic, from picture books such as The Wolves in the Wall to middle grade novels such as Coraline and the Newbery winning The Graveyard Book (most HarperCollins), to his graphic novels and adult work. You may not always like the bizarre and disturbing worlds he creates, but they are never dull! And he knows that kids are supposed to be the heroes in children’s books. His are typically stronger than the adults around them.
Stepping away from speculative fiction again, we get Carl Hiaasan, who has been successful with his middle grade novels Hoot, Flush, and Scat (Knopf). These have something in common with his adult mysteries — oddball characters and plenty of action — but they also have a solidly middle grade feel, with realistic characters struggling to make a difference in their world.
Sherman Alexie apparently wasn’t trying to write for young people with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007), but his editors saw the crossover potential. Alexie tells his stories with humor and heart, drawing on his own unusual experiences as a youth.
I can imagine several reasons successful adult authors might want to turn to writing for children. Perhaps their own children have gotten them interested in telling stories to kids. Maybe they’ve remembered a childhood incident that would make the basis of a good book. Maybe they want to try something new. Or maybe they want to tap into another market, one that has remained stable in a down economy.
Regardless of the reasons, the ones who succeed are the ones who have a grasp of modern kids and modern kids’ literature. The ones who realize that books for children are different from books for adults, but that doesn’t mean they’re condescending or preachy. The ones who understand that children’s books are not easier or less important.
So now it’s your turn — what’s your opinion on the books I’ve mentioned? Any others that fit this topic?
Chris may start writing for adults someday, because, you know, it would be easier.