Claudia Lewis’s Writing for Young Children was the first book I ever read on the subject, and it remains one of my favorites to this day, having become something of a touchstone for me.
Lewis doesn’t describe how to write for the market, or how to get published, or how to create a great story arc. She doesn’t offer tips on writing a query letter, or inside information about this or that publishing house, or an account of her own route to publication. Not that these things don’t matter. Lewis’s book, though, is about the poetry and pleasure of language.
She writes about children — about their “language of sensory perception” and their own spontaneous poetry. She argues that “…children know how they feel, inside and out, from their toenails to their teeth, while we grown-ups — and would-be writers at that — have long since lost contact with our physical selves.” She goes on, “Whenever the writer can seize upon a phrase of living speech; whenever he can make us feel the hot sun on our backs, or dampness against the skin, or light and dark around us… children will listen, and will return to listen again… Primarily [children] want what we all want when we open a book — words that can work a little magic, a language strong enough to hold emotion.”(from the Introduction)
Lewis believes in poetry and in a strength in language that is rooted in full physical experience of the world — a sort of experience that she sees as the domain of childhood. She doesn’t suggest that adult writers imitate children’s usage, so much as try to understand it, learn from it, and take note. The text is peppered with great observations and examples, and while Lewis’s argument for strong and evocative language is not an unfamiliar one, her anchoring of it in the lives, words and experienes of children is less typical.
Whenever I return to the book I find myself drawn most to the Introduction and the first three chapters: I. The Language of Sensory Perception, II. Rhythm, III. Sound. The remaining three — IV. Form, V. Content, and VI. Some Common Pitfalls — feel more dated and less elemental.
Claudia Louise Lewis (1907-2001) was both an educator and a writer, and was a true Progressive. Born in Oregon, she studied first at Reed College, then at Bank Street in New York, then the University of Minnesota and, finally at Columbia Teachers College — where she earned her PhD in 1959. She taught at progressive schools in the New York area for years, and from 1938-1941 founded, directed and taught at a nursery school at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee — a nexus of labor and civil rights activism in the south during the mid-twentieth century. Later in her life, on the faculty at Bank Street College, she taught children’s literature courses and courses on writing for children.
Lewis’s own published writing ran the gamut from children’s books to textbooks to poetry collections — with poetry viewed as her strength (Bank Street College annually awards the ‘Claudia Lewis Award’ to the best children’s poetry book of the year). Few of her books have remained current, though.
Writing for Young Children draws from Lewis’s lifetime of experience working with children: paying close attention as great teachers do, and always listening. Her basic idea of knowing a young audience in such a direct and immediate way seems somehow eternally relevant. As does her urging that we, as writers, fill our own language with the sort of poetry that emerges so effortlessly and spontaneously in young children’s words.
(The book was originally published in 1954, and a revised edition came out in 1981. Finding a copy probably requires a library visit or, alternatively, a trip to Biblio.)