WRITING FOR CHILDREN
by Carol Hall
I've been asked to discuss "writing for children," and I confess that something in me (something childish in me) stamps my foot and rebels.
"Writing For Children" feels a little too theoretical, not to mention a bit girly-girly for my taste. Still, I have to admit, that there may be principles here worth mentioning. Fifteen years of writing songs for Sesame Street, Free To Be You And Me, Free To Be A Family, Captain Kangaroo, Big Blue Marble, etc. cause me to think I may be following rules I've somehow unwittingly pulled together. (Lo and behold, I got principles I didn't even know about, always a good feeling.)
I am reminded of a day many years ago, when my own children had a two-year-old friend named Alexander, whose father was an intellectual of international renown and scope; his mother, a brilliant journalist of equal weight. Possibly due to that, the two-year old Alexander was in the habit of saying such things as, "I was conceived in a house not far from here."
On the day I am about to describe to you, Alexander and his brilliant mother and my children and I were taking a walk through the backyard, where we came upon a dead rabbit. It was lying flatter than a pancake and decomposing beside a tree.
"What's that thing?' asked Alexander.
"Oh, God," said Alexander's brilliant mother, sotto voce, "it's just so difficult to discuss Being versus Non-Being, I sometimes don't know where to begin with him."
Staring intently at the rabbit, Alexander inquired again, "What's that thing?"
His mother went on, whispering: "Ever since Alexander's grandmother D-I-E-D, it's been a constant parental challenge, trying to verbalize metaphysical concepts."
By now, Alexander was shouting: "What's that thing, WHAT'S THAT THING?"
At this point, I admit, I lost control of myself. "It's a dead rabbit, Alexander," I said.
"Oh," said Alexander, kicking it once, and moving on.
The point of the story (which I shall call The Dead Rabbit Principle of Writing For Children) is this: simplify, and tell the truth.
And by "simplify," I don't mean you should ignore the vast quantity of educational research material available regarding developmental capacities of children. Indeed, I advise you to read everything you can find on the subject, and then relax, forget about it, and write. Frankly, I don't think Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen worried very much about whether or not children were mature enough to understand the wit of "If I Only Had A Brain." However, their talent and intuition led them to write a song any child can comprehend, a song about feeling helpless, and about longing for some magical secret ingredient, in order to feel smart enough to deal with the world.
Speaking of research, I want to add a word on behalf of the personal kind: go to the source. And if the source is your neighborhood six year-old, all the better. Back in the Seventies, when Sheldon Harnick, Mary Rodgers, Peter Stone and I were fashioning a children's album produced by Marlo Thomas called Free To Be You and Me, our goal was clearly political. We were to come up with non-sexist songs and stories for kids to give a strong new message but to make it funny and interesting. I was assigned to write a song called "It's All Right To Cry," which would say to boys that it was okay to show feelings, express sorrow and feel vulnerable.
As a mother myself, I'd seen my own five year-old son embarrassed in a grocery store checkout line, when he was having a typical, average end-of-the-day-fall-down-hissy-fit and a perfect stranger drew herself up, looked down at him and said disapprovingly, "YOUNG MAN, LITTLE BOYS DON'T CRY!"
While my son stopped to consider whether or not he wished to continue being a little boy, it's my theory that this perfect stranger went home to wonder why her husband "never talked to her" or "never told her anything." I saw a connection between these two things and felt it was important that I write this song.
So who did I call? Five year-olds. I asked a local school teacher if I could come talk to her class. I had a lot of questions to ask them about crying: what makes you do it, does it help, how do you feel? Simple stuff, really. And it was a five year-old who told me, "Crying gets the sad out of you; it's like raindrops from your eyes."
(And, yes, I re-arranged his lines, put 'em to music, and didn't even give him a piece of the publishing).
And now, one last thought; consider writing for children an exercise in devising a secret code to the heart.
Example: "Kiss 'Da Girl," from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s The Little Mermaid. The audience is dying for the Prince to kiss the Mermaid. He doesn't. Then he doesn't, some more. Then he almost does, but not quite. We're all in agony, we're going crazy.
So who sings, is it the Mermaid? No. Suddenly it feels as if maybe we're singing. Because the crab is singing exactly what we're all thinking and feeling "Kiss 'da girl, kiss 'da girl!"
Hey, maybe the Crab is the Greek chorus! Hey, maybe the Crab is us!
And the Prince still doesn't kiss her. I call that "dramatic tension." And whether you’re writing for children or for Broadway, if you ain’t got that, you ain’t got nuthin’.
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