“There is no such thing as children’s literature.”
–NVM Gonzalez, UP Writers Workshop, Baguio, 1995
(From left to right: NVM, Fran Ng, me & Carla Pacis)
This was what the late NVM Gonzalez told us when we asked him who–in his opinion– was the best children’s writer, foreign or local. On hindsight, it was such a naïve, slumbook-type of a question to ask of a great writer, and this was not at all surprising, because we were still all so naïve back then—as we all yet had to publish our first books–Carla Pacis, Fran Ng and I. (After the workshop, Carla and I with some of our other UP Workshop batchmates will start Kuwentista ng mga Tsikiting, literally, Filipino for Writers for Children.) So, you can just imagine our shock and disappointment at his answer—he was, after all, one of our workshop panelists, and the UP Likhaan Workshop that year, with Prof Amelia Lapena-Bonifacio at the helm, was devoted to writing for children. We felt so let down.
“Either it’s literature,” NVM said, “or it’s not.”
I don’t know. Maybe because I was too slow, it would take me some years of writing before I could make any sense of what he said. Only now do I realize he hadn’t meant to be disparaging to writers of children’s books; I believe he had simply meant that if anything at all was worth writing about, it deserved to be written really well. We had prodded him, after all, to elucidate; we asked him what he thought of writers like Oscar Wilde, for intance, who wrote “The Selfish Giant” and “The Happy Prince”. “Ah,” NVM smiled, “But what he wrote was literature.”
You don’t choose to write for children because you think it’s easier to write. Or because you think it’s the fastest route to winning your first Palanca award for literature. You choose to write for children because you want to and you need to.
The lowdown: 1. The same (grammatical) rules apply. It’s not easy writing for children, at least books that kids will genuinely care for (because their adults are notoriously drawn to the wordy and didactic kind.). As in literature aimed at adults, there is no room for grammatical errors in writing for children.
2. Writing for children isn’t a childish endeavor. How you write for children should be pretty much the same way you write for adults—that is, with great care and a lot of attention to detail. Kids can be the toughest and most brutally honest audience to write for. Either they like your story or they don’t.
3. It takes a lot of practice, but the main challenge in writing stories for children is using the least number of words with the maximum impact. It requires preciseness, so in a way it’s much like writing poetry. Furthermore, the syntax has to be tight and uncomplicated.
NVM taught me that a writer’s objective in every writing is to achieve a gestalt to a piece. Anything you put into your story should have a critical effect on the whole, otherwise it would be superfluous.