Between Adult and Children’s Literature

Drawing and Erasing Boundaries

Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania

It was a warm July evening. After the launch of the book about Frida Kahlo, me and the book illustrator, Aušra Kiudulaitė, slowly went up the mountain: she was headed home, and I towards my car. “It’s so easy with these launches for adult readers, though,” she sighed. “Mhm,” I agreed. We did not speak of it further: we had discussed this topic many times before. Behind us hundreds of meetings with children, and only a few with adult readers. The former are so unpredictable that you cannot be absolutely prepared for them. You arrive with a plan of how the meeting will go, how you will proceed, maybe use the same things that yesterday’s kids found interesting. Then, the meeting begins and you realise that the atmosphere is different, you’ll have to improvise and look for things that will surprise and catch the children’s attention in this particular space and time. If the child is bored, only two things will help: a strict adult watching over them (the factor of power and fear being the dominant force here) or your talent to improvise. Only in the second case you may say that you were successful. Meetings with adult readers are easier: you can be sure that even if they’re bored, the audience will calmly sit in their seats until the end, they won’t cause a racket, and nobody will attempt to do a headstand, or force you to do one.

Just before that book launch, we sat with Aušra in her studio and perused illustration sketches for an upcoming book. Behind her were three children’s books, behind me — seven, with the eighth on its way. And our mutual baby, which shook both of our lives — the picture book The Fox on the Swing (Laimė yra lapė). And here, before us laid the adult poetry collection Žuvys fontanuose. We debated the forms and the colours, the emotions, and how well would the visual aspect align with the text. When you observe this from a distance, you see it as a transition to another genre and a new territory. But when you’re in it, the sensation probably feels like living in a country that’s going through unrest: the outside views living there as much more dangerous than those who actually do. The cycle of amplified news on TV and online media against the simple household, where, among all the turbulence, the simple life still goes on: you get up, you eat, you talk, you think about how you are going to survive, and you go to sleep again. So likewise to us this is just another common project, for the violinist, when he must play either Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, does not make much of a distinction between the two.

Some time ago the literary world adhered to a rule (an unwritten one, probably, because nobody managed to find an existing record) — to stay and operate within one’s genre. If you write for adults, just keep doing that. If you began with children’s literature, well, it’s your fault for ruining your career like that. You’re staying on the backseat. There were exceptions of course: Roald Dahl, Tove Jansson, A.A. Milne, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and other less known authors wrote for both audiences. But these were exceptions that proved the rule rather than breaking it. But eventually the day came when literature for children and young adults broke the ice with both increasing sales and prestige and began to rebuke the view that writing and drawing for children is easier and requires less effort. One of the major icebreakers was Joanne Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, although her transition to adult literature was at first done with a pen name. The movement from adult to children’s lit is seen in Lithuania, too, while the Poetry Spring anthology, in print for 56 years, was published for the first time in its history containing a chapter of children’s poetry.

When I speak to other children’s literature writers, I find some wanting to test themselves in the adult genre as well, and there are some who have already done that. Why do they need this? Why the switch? Isn’t it enough, and much easier, to do the same thing? I, too, wrote poetry for adults before I began writing for children. My school years marked my first attempts. I returned to poetry in 2007. When I began to write prose for children, I put poetry aside, until one day it became my saving grace that helped me stay afloat. The success of the book The Fox on the Swing had its own dark side — I couldn’t write anymore. I tried assembling new works for children, but they did not stick, it seemed like they paled in comparison to the original book. Now I understand that I had put too much pressure on myself and set the standard too high. On the other hand, the persistent meetings tired me and left me ignorant of my own voice. As if that weren’t enough, we moved with our family to another country. This experience posed new challenges and stress, but it also gave me a lot of time for myself and the possibility to view my own life from the side, as if it were somebody else’s. A wave of poems soon followed. These poems emerged from the deep and painful recesses of my mind. Not the kind of place you’d like to put yourself in, not the kind of place where children’s poetry is born, but the kind that makes you scared — the place you’d rather avoid, but once you’re in it, you’ll emerge as a different person. Step by step, new and different works came into being. They, together with a portion of my earlier poems, are laid out in the book Žuvys fontanuose, which will be published in fall by the publishing house Dvi tylos.

If I were to envision my work as an action, I would see it as juggling three balls —children’s prose, children’s poetry, and poems for adults. What are boundaries? Who gets to draw them? Are they existent? What does one feel when navigatingbetween them? Is it a sense of loss or discovery? These questions are still very fresh to me, and I am unable to answer them. But I definitely know what it is that I want to do — I want to tell stories. Whomever they’re addressed to. In the form and genre that those stories wish to be told. Poet Maya Angelou said that “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” You write and the relief comes shortly. For the time being.