IT'S GETTING CLOSE to 20 years that I've been writing books for kids as a profession. I've enjoyed every minute of it -- of the writing, that is. And I've enjoyed getting to know the readers. The professional aspect is akin to being executed by firing squad -- again and again. But that would be true had I followed any number of other lines of work -- process server, skunk farmer, prison dentist. I've no call to complain.
I'd like to sketch some of the high and low points of my career, so far. I got involved with children's books by putting too strict an interpretation on my father's advice. He told me not to hang around in pool halls. I did as he said, but did not refrain from low company in general. Inevitably, I ran into a children's book editor, who offered me a contract.
At the time, I was trying to be a Fine Artist, a printmaker, and picking up a few dollars teaching children's art classes in settlement houses in New York City. I had become very interested in, not to say awestruck by, the productions of the children in my classes. Their paintings seemed to me more direct, more powerful, more important than what I studied in museums and galleries.
At the same time, the first little creaks of success in the art world were resonating dull and hollow. I'd aspired for my work to be included in an important print show, the biennial at the Brooklyn Museum. This particular year, the curator accepted a print of mine. I was excited. I took to hanging out in the gallery, watching the effect of my masterpiece on the patrons. This was a mistake. They stopped, they looked, they read my name, did not recognize it, and moved on. Sometimes one would sum up the picture in a word or two, and put it in its art-historical place.
"Who needs this?" I thought. I had gotten spoiled by spending so much time with elementary school artists. I was used to seeing people use and react to color as a powerful stimulant, form as impacting directly on the cortex, pictures as things to evoke shouts or laughter or singing. What tolerance I had for Art as a social pastime had been erased by contact with those intense little brush-wielding critters.
So when the editor suggested I illustrate a book, it seemed the most natural thing in the world -- and I was anxious to give it a try.
But how to go about it? The editor, who turned out to be the prototype for all the editors I would work with, advised me, "Uh, well, I dunno. Uh, you get someone to write it, I guess. And you, like, um, draw pictures. And then you send it to me."
I had respected my father's wishes to this extent -- I didn't know any writers. So I unlimbered the portable typewriter, and wrote a picture book myself. It wasn't difficult. I'm just old enough to have gone to college when they still expected people to be able to make sentences, and spell, and things like that.
And the book was accepted. What's more, they gave me money! $1,500! More money than I'd earned in my whole career as an artist. It got even better. There was a splendid book designer at the publishers. (In my experience, book designers, as opposed to editors, tend to know what they're doing). He helped make the book something really beautiful. It won prizes.
Of course, it didn't make any money -- but who cared about that? I had fun. Besides, I didn't think I'd spend the better part of the next two decades doing kids' books. It was just going to be a diverting experience and a few quick advances. I was taking a side excursion from my real vocation.
Because I had no reason to do otherwise, the books I made after that first venture represented the serious best I could do as an artist. I had no idea of how to write or draw for a "market," and no inclination to do so -- and to be fair, nobody asked me to. I expected it to come to an end after two or three excursions. Outside of my little geniuses in New York City, how many super-intelligent, really sophisticated, sharp-eyed and quick-witted kids could there be? I had been a super-smart kid myself, and I undertook to make books I would have liked.
It turns out that this country is lousy with bright kids. I've been corresponding with them to the tune of at least 1,000 letters a year, and have produced between 40 and 50 books for them. Somewhere along the way writing even became more important to me than drawing.
I enjoy and respect my readers -- and I've evolved some new notions of how education comes about, since the language skills of teachers and librarians frequently don't come up to those of the pupils.
I continue to underestimate them. No matter how far I go, no matter how far-out, complicated or experimental the work gets, the kids, usually younger than I thought they'd be vis-a`-vis a given book, get it, and often surpass it in the letters, critiques and take-offs I'm privileged to see.
The bottom line: I can't imagine a more intent, perceptive, enthusiastic and scrupulous readership than young people (a few of whom, I'm pleased to report, are nominal adults). But how many of my grown-up colleagues hear from individuals who have devoured a given novel 15 times?
I can't say how much longer all this will last. The kiddie-book industry -- never, in my experience, very strong on courage, imagination or honesty -- is currently under the spell of such corporate thinkers as find their way into publishing.
As publishers study the ways of Saturday morning televsion producers, and contemplate "tie-ins," marketing gimmicks and improvements to their "product line," I wonder if I ought not to sit out the developments that are to come. Maybe I'll have to.
I figure I can lay low until my readers take over society, at which time I can -- oh, I don't know -- maybe run for president.
Daniel Pinkwater is the author of numerous books for young people, including "The Hoboken Chicken Emergency," "Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars" and "The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror."