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Sunday, May 15, 2011

(Christian) Art for Children

Selections from Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Whether a story is to be marketed for grown-ups or for children, the writer writes for himself, out of his own need. Otherwise, the story will lack reality.... If it is written because it is what is at the moment fashionable, and not out of the writer's need, then it is apt to be unbelievable, and what is unbelievable can often be shocking and even pornographic--and this includes some recent children's books....

Nancy Berkowitz, long a great friend of children's books and their writers, told me last year that I'd given her the best definition of a children's book that she'd ever heard. Having completely forgotten ever giving such a definition, I asked eagerly, "What was it?"

"A children's book is any book a child will read."

First my children and now my grandchildren are proof of this, moving from children's books marketed for their own age range--the girls are ten and eleven years old--to any grown-up novel I think would appeal to them. All they require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer the protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist.

...One summer I taught a class in techniques of fiction at a major Midwestern university. About half way through the course, one of the students came up to me after class and said, "I hope you're going to teach us something about writing for children. That's really why I'm taking this course."

"What have I been teaching you?"


"Don't you write when you write for children?"

"Well--but isn't it different?"

No, it is not different. The techniques of fiction are the techniques of fiction. They hold as true for Beatrix Potter as they do for Fyodor Dostoevsky. Characterization, style, theme, are as important in a children's book as in a novel for grown-ups. Taste, as always, will differ (spinach vs. beets again). A child is not likely to identify with the characters in Faulkner's Sanctuary. Books like A Wrinkle in Time may seem too difficult to some parents.

But if a book is not good enough for a grown-up, it is not good enough for a child.

...One summer at a writer's conference I felt that something was wrong with most of the juvenile manuscripts I received--not all of them, but enough so that it worried me, especially because I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong.

On the last day of the conference all the workshops were open, and almost everybody attended them all. Most of the students had been in two or three workshops, so I had the opportunity to listen to poems, stories, sections of novels, written by the men and women from my workshop. In almost every case, the work in the other workshops was better than the work they had turned in to me, and
I discovered to my horror that they had been writing down, not so much down to children as
down to themselves, writing below their own capacity.

I listened to an excellent story written by a young man who had turned in some indifferent material to me, and after class I figuratively shook him as I said, "That is the way you write for children: the way you wrote that story, not the--junk you wrote for me."

...This is the typical underestimation of the adult as to the capacity of children to understand philosophical, scientific, and theological concepts.
But there is no idea that is too difficult for children as long as it underlies a good story and quality writing

...Not long ago a college senior asked if she could talk to me about being a Christian writer. If she wanted to write Christian fiction, how was she to go about it?

I told her that if she is truly and deeply a Christian, what she writes is going to be Christian, whether she mentions Jesus or not. And if she is not, in the most profound sense, Christian, then what she writes is not going to be Christian, no matter how many times she invokes the name of the Lord.

When another young woman told me that she wanted to be a novelist, that she wanted to write novels for Christian women, and asked me how to go about it, I wrote back, somewhat hesitantly, that I could not tell her, because I do not write my books for either Christians or women. If I understand the Gospel, it tells us that we are to spread the Good News to all four corners of the world, not limiting the giving of light to people who already have seen the light.
If my stories are incomprehensible to Jews or Muslims or Taoists, then I have failed as a Christian writer. We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it

...The Secret Garden is probably the most successful and most read and reread of [Frances Hodgson] Burnett's books; it is also Christian, though I don't remember whether or not it ever mentions Jesus. And it is more successful than Little Lord Fauntleroy, for instance, because it is a better piece of story-telling, less snobbish, and the message doesn't show, like a slip hanging below the hem of a dress. I think we can all recognize ourselves, at least to some degree, in Mary Lennox, who is as spoiled and self-centered a child as one can find, thoroughly nasty and unlovable, basically because she's never been taught to love anybody but herself. The secret garden is as much the garden of Mary's heart as it is the walled English garden, and we watch Mary's slow growth into the realization of other peoples' needs, and then into love. Mary's journey into love is, in fact, her journey into Christ, though this is never said, and does not need to be said.

...I probably didn't answer the young women who wrote to me about writing for Christians. Their chief job right now is to learn the techniques of fiction, to read as many of the great writers as possible, and to learn from them, without worrying about how often they went to church, or to what denomination they belonged. The important thing to look for is whether or not they could write.


  1. This post is hands down the most inspiring message on writing that I have read in a long time. And I have read many posts that inspired me.

    I would love to sit at the feet of this instructor.

  2. Wow! Madeleine L'Engle tells it so simply. I would have loved to been in her workshop. There are not many children's writers that compare to her.

  3. She is one of my all-time fave authors, regardless of subject or age group.

    This is just so true: If my stories are incomprehensible to Jews or Muslims or Taoists, then I have failed as a Christian writer. We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.

  4. As a homeschool mom, I was drawn to the teachings of Charlotte Mason, who warned against literary "twaddle"--For children and adults. You've put your finger on it in this post, both in terms of children's literature, but in terms of distinctly Christian fiction, too. A Christian can't help but write something Christian in nature, whether it mentions Jesus or not. The story is the thing! I pray He shines through my writing, rather than showing like a slip under a dress.


  5. I absoluletly LOVED Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water. Devoured it. And what she says is true---some of the best books ever written were written for children. I gained some of my deepest spiritual thoughts from CS Lewis's Narnia.

  6. Beautiful works, beautifully articulated. What a gift L'Engle is to anyone who writes with the joy and urgency of grace as the soundtrack to story!

    Thanks for such a fantastic post.

    kimberly stuart

  7. My best memory of Madeleine (besides discovering her stories as a 12 year-old girl) is sitting in a room full of readers at Calvin College, not long after her death, listening to Jeffrey Overstreet eulogize a writer we all adored. There was a collective murmur when Madeleine's photo appeared on the screen, and many people wiped away tears as Jeffrey spoke in a low, measured tone, his voice breaking on "a light so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."

    She is missed.


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