But somewhere along the line, I started to pay attention. Maybe it was because my daughters began to articulate what they liked and didn’t like about the books we were reading. Both girls went through intense Nancy Drew phases, and one of them observed that “Nancy always gets knocked unconscious at the end of chapter two.” The formula had been exposed.
As my girls got older, we might comment on metaphors—“A carpet of stars? That doesn’t make sense! It should be something over your head, like a tent”—or a great plot twist, or the successful use of humor. (For the record, Ivy and Bean are the most hilarious second-graders ever, and we could all learn a thing or two about comedy from Annie Barrows.) I came to love Cynthia Rylant’s Mr. Putter, the most unlikely of children’s book protagonists: an old man who lives alone with his cat, Tabby, with whom he experiences simple adventures like picking pears and riding a train. As is true in many children’s books, character is developed in the Mr. Putter books partly through wonderful illustrations, in this case by Arthur Howard, who gives Mr. Putter expressive, squiggly raised eyebrows, three tufts of hair arcing from over each ear, and four more from the top of his head. How might I do that same thing with words?
Reading with my girls, I observed Robert McCloskey’s art of allowing a quiet, perfect story to take its time to unfold, as in One Morning in Maine or Blueberries for Sal. No one captures the real rhythms of dialogue better than Russell Hoban in his Frances books. Laura Joffe Numeroff shows us how pleasurable it is to find we have traveled a great circle back to the beginning in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and its sequels. And while the Nancy Drew writers known as Carolyn Keene are perhaps the queens (and kings) of high conflict and suspense, you can find lessons in establishing tension immediately from many other children’s books as well, such as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which Judith Viorst begins with, “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
I began writing my novel, A Violet Season, right in the heart of our read-together years, and there is no doubt that I took in some of the lessons of these children’s books. I cut the entire first chapter of an early draft to get to the action sooner. I worked at raising the stakes chapter by chapter, building suspense, while I slowed down and savored other scenes, where the action could afford to be more leisurely, more descriptive, more internal. I got to know my characters, and though A Violet Season tells a serious story, I managed to insert a few moments of levity.
For the past few years, my older daughter and I have been attending a local library’s mother-daughter book group. Sometimes I love the books (right now, Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm), but mostly I love finding out what interests my daughter as a reader and a person, and what interests her friends. Usually it’s high-stakes adventure or fantasy. From our book group reads, as from those earlier children’s books, I continue to notice that a well-crafted sentence, a perfect detail, a surprising twist or a funny line is every bit as great in a pre-teen chapter book as it is in an adult classic.
There are, of course, things that adult literature does that children’s books don’t. Think, for example, of the complexity of interwoven stories in Middlemarch or the psychological drama of Crime and Punishment. But writers for adults shouldn’t overlook the value of a good children’s book for gathering some essentials of storytelling. One of the great things about them is they’re a quick read. All you need is a kid and a book. Or, for that matter, just a book, a keen eye, and half an hour to spare.
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season, a historical novel set on a Hudson Valley violet farm on the eve of the twentieth century. She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, and The Pinch. Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters. Learn more about her at www.kathyleonardczepiel.com, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter at @KLCzepiel.