Writing U.S. Editions of Children's Books

November 25, 2014

           I’ve neglected this blog lately. I suppose I’ve been distracted by the attractions of New York. The city is always at its shiniest and most intoxicating when you return from a long stretch away from it. But I’ve left N.Y. again  -- to spend my favourite American holiday, Thanksgiving, with a great friend and her family deep in rural, Southern Virginia. Those are her daughters in the photo, my charming co-hosts, Maeve and Fiona, who took me to their local roller rink. They’re the first people who actually wanted to be featured in my blog as opposed to the more common, ‘If you mention me in your blog, I will have to kill you,” response.

          I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to do author visits to local schools and greatly appreciated the warmth of the welcome I received from the teachers and students. My visits prompted me to think about writing U.S. editions of children’s books. I’d assumed that it was mostly merely a matter of translation, of transforming British English into American English with a few tweaks here and there to amend or delete or explain cultural references with perhaps a nod or two to political correctness. My school visits exploded that assumption. There are deeper cultural differences at play. The children in Virginia responded differently to children in Britain and Ireland. The most noticeable differences were with respect to humour and ways of thinking.

          I found that the kids on both sides of the Atlantic have a healthy, well-developed sense of humour but they laughed at different parts!  There’s a scene in the first Evie Brooks book,Marooned in Manhattan, where Evie comes across an iguana on a miniature treadmill at a pet gym. Irish children find that scene hilarious. When I read it or tell the story, I can always count on them to burst out laughing. Here, that scene met with silence, an interested, engaged silence, but silence nonetheless. That made me start to breakout into a sweat. There’s another scene in the first book involving Evie’s first encounter with her uncle’s girlfriend Leela.  I’d meant for the scene to be amusing but Irish children never find it remotely funny. The American kids found it even funnier than I’d intended. I’m not sure why that scene made them laugh so much although I was certainly glad for their help with easing my sweating problem.

          The kids asked me different kinds of questions. In Ireland I received a fairly high proportion of hypothetical, off-the-map questions (about 10-20%). Here are some real examples:

  • If you had to fight a dragon or a witch, which would you choose?
  • If God sent you an e-mail telling you everything that was going to happen to you during the rest of your life, would you read the e-mail?
  • If you had to be a miniature hippo or a large bulldog, which would you pick?
  • Would you rather be dead than be a zombie? What about if you were a vegetarian zombie?

          On this side of the Atlantic, the children’s questions were much more focused on the map. They asked questions that directly related to my books and to my writing career. They didn’t ask any hypothetical questions. The Virginian kids came across as having a higher interest in learning something concrete, something that was potentially useful to them. This isn’t to say that they lacked imagination. They definitely had heaps of imagination but they expressed it differently.

          Here’s another difference: I usually ask the children to tell me about a book they have read that they really liked OR really disliked and to explain why. Irish children tend to take up that option about 70%:30%. They will passionately explain why a book was brilliant (70%) or why it was boring/total rubbish (30%). The children here had an equal level of passion for reading but they greatly preferred to talk about books that they liked! 100%.  Is that a sign of a deeply-entrenched think-positive culture? Or is it merely an indicator that I didn’t explain the option clearly enough.

          I think that the differences in the student responses can partly be explained by the structure of the sessions, which was dictated to a certain extent by tradition. For example, when I visited my old school in Dublin, the girls rose to their feet when I entered the classroom and remained standing until the teacher gave them permission to resume their seats. That’s the way it was when I attended the school and it’s a continuation of a school tradition in place for hundreds of years. However, it was left entirely up to me as to how I wanted to be addressed by the girls and how I interacted with them. I started the sessions with “Call me Sheila” and I talked with them in an ostensibly relaxed, casual way.  I wasn’t visiting the schools as an authority figure, but rather as an author friend. The local children in Virginia didn’t stand when I entered the classroom because that’s not part of their school tradition. But there’s an important tradition in the Southern U.S. concerning children addressing adults formally by title or by Ma’am or Sir.  The tradition obviously has the same purpose as the standing-up ritual in the Irish school; it’s a mark of respect for, and deference to adults. The teachers here asked me if I should be called Ms. Agnew or Mrs. Agnew. It would have been highly disrespectful of me to suggest that the children use my first name. But I felt that the title created a barrier between me and the kids. They might have asked different questions if we were talking on an equal, friends level.

          The Virginian kids got me thinking a lot about the importance of word choice. In a scene from the first book, Evie is very reluctantly rescued in Central Park by a boy called Finn. One girl startled me with a question about Finn, “the boy who works in Central Park.”  I couldn’t figure out why she thought Finn workedin Central Park.  She very obligingly told me --  because he wore aRangers baseball cap!  Irish children don’t know that the Rangers are a New York ice hockey team but they correctly assume that the Rangers are a local sports team. The kids in Virginia weren’t familiar with the New York hockey team either but they jumped to the entirely logical conclusion that Finn was one of the Park rangers!  We don’t use the term “park ranger” in British/Irish English.

           At the end of the day, the kids had more similarities than differences. Kids are kids. They all appreciate a good story! That’s why Harry Potter did so well all over the globe. And the kids on both sides of the Atlantic had the same impact on me. They made me think . . . and they  made me laugh. But I think it’s important for authors to try to take differences into account. I think that when children’s authors are writing U.S. editions of their books, they should grab any opportunity to discuss the books with American children and not merely rely on guidance from their U.S. editors.

          I’m hugely enjoying my time in Virginia. It is so enchantingly beautiful here. I was helping my friend with her horses this morning. After two days of rain, we were up to the tops of our boots in bright red mud. Even the mud here is beautiful.

          I’m looking forward to my first Southern Thanksgiving. The food here is sooooooo good!  You have to taste the cake! Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

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