Our current read-aloud is a draft of The Extraordinary Book of Doors, my work in progress due to be released, I hope, in early spring of 2014. Reading aloud is a great way to proofread and find errors and awkwardnesses that the eye skims silently over, but even more importantly, P and T are serving as my first critics/guinea pigs, letting me know when things are unclear or unsatisfactory. Their reactions are always helpful, but sometimes they're also quite illuminating about the way children (or at least these particular children) think. Sometimes they think very differently from adult editors.
The example that prompted these observations was P's very first comment on my story. The character Chen Connelly was looking at the magical Book of Doors in his parents' office, and P piped up, "You need to describe the office more. I can't picture where the tables are, and the windows and stuff." Now, anyone who's read my books (especially the Otherworld series!) knows that I do not stint on description, so I had already included a few clues about this office, blended in with the unfolding actions of the characters. I looked at the passage in question and couldn't really see where I could add any more description without slowing down the narrative. Elmore Leonard's rules of writing include "Don't go into great detail describing places…" and every advice guide for writers you'll ever see these days admonishes against description, adjectives of all sorts, and info dumps. This tells us that editors these days dislike description. It implies that at least some adult readers (particularly the ones who also have jobs as editors) dislike description. What it doesn't tell us is what children like to read. At least one child, my son, clearly feels strongly that you need to be given enough description to be able to picture the scene quite specifically.
This reminds me of the first book I wrote for P and T, Kate and Sam to the Rescue. In this story Kate and Sam's parents are unexpectedly carried off by a dragon and the children set off to rescue them. Children and parents eventually meet up and are happily reunited, the conflicts have their climactic resolution, and I as the writer figured I needed a paragraph or two of wrap-up and my job was done. T and P, then six years old, had other ideas. They were aghast that I could even contemplate wrapping up the story at that point. Our heroes were away from home, and the story couldn't be over until they'd gotten all the way back home. But it wouldn't be enough for me to write blithely, "Three days later they were back at their own front door," or anything easy like that. Oh no, I was to narrate every step of the journey back, with further adventures along the way.
Sometimes adult editors and critics have different taste from the children who are the target audience. That editors and parents are the gatekeepers of what children get to read has always been an issue, the more so the younger the child. It's a simple fact that if I want my books to sell (and I do!) then to be economically realistic it's more important that I appeal to book buyers than book readers. But at the same time, much as I want to sell books, what I want even more is to write stories that children enjoy reading - enjoy and find satisfying in that deep way that characterizes the best books. So when adults and children find satisfaction in opposing styles, what's a writer to do? Well, as usual, I kiss economic considerations goodbye and fall back on my own judgement. In the case of Kate and Sam, I decided to honor T and P's demands and include a few more chapters for the journey home. Think of "The Scouring of the Shire" in The Return of the King, which some Tolkien readers hate while others love. I'll admit that even though I happen to like "The Scouring," parts of my final chapters of Kate and Sam to the Rescue are weaker than I'd like, and I know writing instructors everywhere would label them anticlimactic. And yet that's what T and P wanted; that's what the story needed to give them satisfaction.
As for the description of that office in The Extraordinary Book of Doors, I'll go over those passages as I continue to work on rewriting. I'll try to figure out whether additional description makes it better or worse, and eventually I'll follow my own judgement and call it done. But I think this dilemma should serve as a reminder for writers for children to keep in the back of their minds - that children don't always think like adults, and what seems Right to them may not be what conforms to the rules we adults have been told to follow.
[Pictures: St Salvator's Door, photoshop by AEGN, 2013;
Galleria Door, photoshop by AEGN, 2013, both from The Extraordinary Book of Doors by AEGN.]