I was reading a message board the other day concerning classic picture books that make you wonder how they ever got published. Part of the discussion centered around how the children’s book market has changed over the years. The approach to children’s education and the state of the children’s book market was quite different seventy, fifty, or even twenty years ago. I wrote a previous blog post on some of the classics, and how they hold up.
What was most interesting to me about this discussion was not the different opinions about why classics are classics, and why some hold up throughout the years, and some do not. What I saw when I read each post was this: Everyone likes something different.
Several specific books were mentioned, especially Madeline. There were some pretty strong opinions on why they loved the book, or not. Some loved it, some hated it. I myself don’t get the appeal of Madeline. The character strikes me as a spoiled brat who is put into a variety of unrealistic (but not fantasy) situations.
Regardless, I may not like it, but clearly others do. Some people may find several of my favorite books annoying or dated. But we all, as readers (children and adults alike) like something different.
Editors and publishers today may focus primarily on what will sell the most copies. They must analyze and assess the market of today, and what meets the needs of the bookstore, online, and school markets. I don’t envy them the challenge of trying to float a ship on the changing tides of pop culture and educational theory.
As I writer, I have had many arguments with myself (quietly, I promise) about whether to ditch the story I really love in favor of something more commercially viable. As I advance my craft, I strive to create stories that meet both my personal requirements and the needs of the current market.
But I must start at the beginning: writing what is in my heart. Perhaps what I write will be sellable someday (hopefully!). But if I don’t write what is in my heart, I believe it won’t speak the truth or touch my readers in any way. And if everyone likes something different, perhaps instead of trying to speak to everyone, I should strive to speak to someone.
So in the end, whether a story meets the technical requirements of today’s market or not, it must start in a personal place. And that’s good news. The joy of writing down the stories that are begging me to be written, those that occupy a special place in my heart and mind, are why I write in the first place.
As a parent and passionate reader of picture books, I find it especially puzzling when classics or current books that we love receive a “meh” reaction from our own children. My carefully preserved childhood collection of Don Freeman and Richard Scarry books were read only once with my kids. (I’ve tried to blot out the memory of the licensed commercial character books they requested over, and over, and over…) Happily we agreed on many books that I would call ‘new’ classics, like those by Mo Willems.
Variety truly is the spice of life!