BYU books symposium: Writing for children a calling, and it's harder than it appears

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Anybody who's ever created a book for children has been asked this question: "But when are you going to write something for adults?" You know. As in "when are you going to write something for real people?"

Several presenters at this week's 26th annual BYU Symposium on Books for Young Readers addressed this issue. Sara Pennypacker, the author of the popular Clementine series who recently published a book for adults, has been surprised by how many people have asked if she's going to write for grown-ups now. Pennypacker said she always thinks of Lois Lowry's response: Do people ever ask pediatricians when they're going to start treating adults?

Philip and Erin Stead, the husband and wife team behind the Caldecott-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee, also expressed surprise at how innocently condescending people can be about their work. "A picture book is not only what most people think it is — an easy thing, with a lot of pictures in it, to read to small children," Philip reflected. "For me, it is a damned difficult thing to do, like working in a complicated and challenging poetric form. It demands so much that you have to be on top of the situation all the time to finally achieve something so simple and put together — so seamless that it looks as if you knocked it off in no time. One stitch showing and you've lost the game."

Philip then went on to say it took him a year to get the 400-word text for Amos McGee just right, adding that he'd have a hard time completing a novel at that pace.

What some people fail to realize is that certain authors actively choose to write for young readers. "I think about why I write for children as though my life depended on it," said Pennypacker, "and, in fact, it does."

Why do some authors and illustrators make this choice? Both Erin and Philip Stead relish the process of creating images and words and striking the perfect balance between the two. Pennypacker expressed gratitude for the opportunity to talk about things that matter with readers who are embarking on a journey of self-discovery. While it's important not to preach — to raise questions instead and respect your young readers enough to answer them for themselves — Pennypacker said it's a privilege to start the conversation.

Pennypacker remarked that many creators of books for children have a similar goal: to make something better. She shared an experience she had while appearing on a panel with other big names in the industry. When asked why they wrote and illustrated for children, Kadir Nelson said he felt compelled to make beauty out of something ugly, Brian Selznick said he hoped to make order out of chaos and Pennypacker said she wanted to make something just out of the unjust.

Pennypacker also had high praise for the librarians and educators who made up the majority of the audience at the Provo City Library. Because of their efforts, children have access to books. "I speak for all children's authors and illustrators. We revere you. We would follow you home and break into your kitchen and make you heart-shaped pancakes — if that weren't so creepy."

Other presenters this year included Karen Cushman, Steve Jenkins, Tony DiTerlizzi, and Utah's own Jennifer Nielsen, the New York Times bestselling author of The Ascendance Trilogy. The symposium is a two-day event held every year in July, featuring an exceptional cast of authors and illustrators. Participation is not limited to educators and librarians. Anyone with an interest in the field is welcome to register and attend.