E. B. White on writing for children

English: A family photograph of E. B. White, c...

Family photograph of E. B. White (Wikipedia)

In a 1969 Paris Review interview, E. B. White gave priceless insight into his success with children’s literature.

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.

This is wonderful: children are congenial readers, but they’re paying attention. So should I, when I write for them. (I observe this trait frequently when I read to my kids.)

As to the hard words: I noticed this in Kate DiCamillo‘s Despereaux, and just tonight I started into Through the Looking Glass. My primary-school boys loved the nonsense of Jabberwocky. I wonder if that isn’t related: Such words, to them, are part of the fun somehow. They don’t share our hangup with thinking we know (or should know) everything important that’s to be known.


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