At a recent conference on children’s books, one of my favorite writers confessed to having an inner 11-year-old who just wanted to read books all day and wear cat print dresses. This inner 11-year-old was why the adult author was comfortable writing fiction for middle schoolers. Looking at the author, I saw a lively, intelligent woman in her mid-30s wearing a hip vintage dress and stylish boots. Looking more closely at the dress, I saw the print was actually cute, little cats.
Listening to her, I realized that I write picture books because I have an inner 4-year-old. That’s the me who’s always happy to stop and look at a dead bug. I never lost that sense of discovering the world for the first time and trying to make sense of it. I spend a lot of time with the simple questions, like what’s that? How does that work? What are those people doing?
When I’m with small children, I get down on the floor with them. It’s easy for adults to forget that at their height, little kids can’t see the top of the kitchen counter. Whatever’s up there — food, candy, the cat — is actually invisible. Their world is full of surprises, not to mention terror and fun.
This isn’t a case of arrested development. I’m a competent adult: a licensed professional with sophisticated analytical skills and decades of experience. It’s just that when I see a new thing, my default approach is the naive straightforwardness of a 4-year-old. I ask a lot of simple questions, and people usually answer them.
It’s an approach with drawbacks. I can seem blunt and/or simple minded. My thought process isn’t for sophisticates: it’s for children. But from that approach the world blossoms and flowers. Everyday systems are just as filled with wonder as fairy tales. The plumbing of a house and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ are equally amazing and equally real. They both have their mysterious sources, their pathways and connections, the parts you can see and the parts you can’t.
Maybe that’s not the best example. I understand basic plumbing, but Little Red Riding Hood-what’s going on in that story? What are those people doing?
With a Perspective, I’m Evan Sagerman.
Evan Sagerman is a San Francisco architect and children’s book author.