Sunday, October 3, 2010

Who Do Authors Write For?

I recently had a discussion with one of my students about the difference between an author writing for kids and for adults. While reading The Littles by John Peterson, all three of my students (fourth and fifth graders) doubled over with laughter when a character shot an arrow at the mouse (the Littles’ foe) and the arrow landed in the mouse’s butt.

Later, when a student was working on his final summary of the book, I asked him what Peterson had included in the story that had affected him. He returned a blank stare.

“What about the part where the mouse gets shot?” I asked, and he started smiling again. “We read the same part,” I said, “but I didn’t laugh. Why?” Another blank stare.

Peterson, I pointed out, wrote that part for kids, not for adults. I hadn’t cracked a smile when we read that scene, even as the lesson stopped as my students laughed and laughed.

This concept—that authors write scenes, jokes, characters, and books for specific audiences—is a new one for my students who tend to think of writing as something by adults, for adults to impose on children (textbooks, books their teachers choose for them, and so on). Or at least, my student hadn’t thought about what Peterson was thinking when he wrote the scene and decided where the mouse would be shot (to be sure, shooting a mouse in the leg or neck isn’t quite as funny) and the idea that Peterson was imagining him reading the book and not me, came as a surprise.

Reflecting on this, it’s also interesting to me the different things that readers pick out. I read The Littles when I was young and loved the book, but I don’t remember the “mouse shot in butt” scene at all. What I remembered were the Littles living in the walls of the Bigg’s house, the tiny rooms set up in the walls, and the way the Littles solved problems and had adventures all out of sight of humans. When I planned lessons for The Littles, I’d taken everything I remembered into account, but hadn’t at all considered the potential humor in the book. The new insights my students bring to our book groups are perhaps one of my favorite things about teaching novels—I didn’t plan to spend time on that scene at all, but I’m glad it made such an impression.

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