'We should all be writing for children. We've gotta get them young,' said Harvey Kaye. He got the chance and found it hard but rewarding work.
The Christmas and Chanukah holiday season seems a most appropriate time to highlight the United States's academy's latest literary movement. Apparently, more and more professors are giving up their traditional snobbishness towards "childish" things and taking up commissions to write books for kids and "young adults" (12 to 18 years old).
When I accepted an invitation from Oxford University Press to write a young people's biography of the 18th-century revolutionary Thomas Paine, I naively and immodestly had envisaged myself an intellectual rebel or pioneer.
However, when I later asked my editor, Nancy Toff, director of children's publishing at OUP in the US, which other university folk she had recruited to write histories, she replied with a long and impressive list of scholars and subjects.
As series editors, she had lined up the likes of Jon Butler and Harry Stout of Yale for Religion in American Life; Robin Kelley of New York University and Earl Lewis of Michigan for African American History; and Nancy Cott of Yale for American Women's History. And her stable of writers included Stephen Stein of Indiana on Alternative American Religions; Albert Raboteau of Princeton on African American Religion; Allen Winkler of Miami on The Cold War; Marilyn Young of NYU on The Vietnam War; Roger Daniels of Cincinnati on American Immigration; John Demos of Yale on Native American Women; and Elaine Tyler May of Minnesota on American Women, 1940-1961.
I may not have been the rebel I had believed myself to be; but, whatever I was, I was in good company.
As we know, university faculty have long subscribed to a rather narrow concept of academic publishing. Only recently have professors eagerly sought to reach extra-academic audiences. Presumably, tenure and promotion will forever hang on refereed journal articles and university press monographs.
Nevertheless, something is clearly happening when, all of a sudden, leading scholars aspire to write not just for their peers and students, but also for pre-college adolescents. My own enlistment as a children's author was pure serendipity. But, perhaps, my reasons for signing on were not so unusual.
I met Ms Toff at an Oxford University Press party held at the American Historical Association convention three years ago. I was not an OUP author, but friends had cajoled me into joining them - if nothing else, they said, the food and drink would be free. I had absolutely no idea what turn my intellectual life was about to take.
I was introduced to Ms Toff, and upon hearing that she edited children's books, I immediately declared: "We should all be writing for kids. We've gotta get them while they're young. By the time they hit college, it's too late." Enthusiastically, she replied: "If you're serious, why don't you?" A few months later, she invited me to write about Paine as part of a new series of biographies.
Her offer thrilled me. Paine had been my hero since childhood, and I knew I would never get around to writing an adult biography (if for no other reason than that two outstanding works had just appeared by Jack Fruchtmann and John Keane, respectively). The project excited me all the more because I imagined myself writing for my own daughters, then aged 16 and 12. Indeed, I figured they would serve as "in-house" editors.
Maybe my generation has begun to develop an interest in writing for young people because we have reached middle-age and now have "young adult readers" of our own. But I think it involves more than age and parenthood. While profs have been parenting for generations, they have not been writing for teenagers.
Though I had always prided myself on writing clearly, I truly had a lot to learn. A smart, appreciative and critical editor, Nancy would return my chapters having filled the margins with notes flagging where I needed to identify individuals, define terms, clarify references, and get rid of jargon. It definitely was not a matter of "dumbing down" the text, or even of simplifying. It was merely a matter of explaining things better. Also, Nancy gave me new rules to follow, such as no footnotes and no quoting of or referring to the work of other historians (other than by way of a bibliography of suggested readings).
I think I learned to tell a better story. Moreover, since such books entail lots of illustrations, I had the fun while writing of making a wish-list of the pictures and maps to accompany the text (not to mention, OUP both assigns someone else the task of securing the preferred illustrations and covers the required fees).
My manuscript is now in production. Oxford expects to launch the series this coming year and promises me that Paine will appear among the first titles.
Though there exist innumerable publishers of kids' books, so far, Oxford is the only university house to have developed a children's and young adult publishing programme. Of course, if Oxford succeeds, other university presses will surely move into the market. And, if my Oxford University Press colleagues and I are at all representative, I expect many more academics will seek to write such works. I personally assumed I would do it once and move on, but, having learned so much and having really enjoyed myself in the process, I keep wondering whom I could write about next.
Harvey J. Kaye is Rosenberg professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.