Sunday, May 10, 2009

Craft Books

On a listserv of writers and illustrators the conversation turned recently to craft books--as in which ones fuel your writing? Now we weren't talking about the basic ones: Harold Underdown's comprehensive volume in the "Complete Idiot's Guide..." series, and Connie Epstein's The Art of Writing for Children. And we weren't talking about literary criticism. There's plenty of that. And yes, we all loved everything Leonard Marcus has ever written, and are in awe that he's singlehandedly documenting the evolution of children's literature for all of us.

Still, we had to conclude that we're sadly lacking in good, I mean substantially good craft books in our field. Books about the creation of fiction and nonfiction for young readers.
Me, I'd love to see more books that go deeper than an introduction. Books that really dig into the complexities of writing for young readers.

So what's on my shelf in the way of craft books? Well, there's Jane Yolen's Take Joy which is lovely and feels as if Jane's standing there at my desk giving me a pep talk. Everyone needs to get a pep talk from Jane.

And a collection of essays (lectures from years ago) edited by William Zinsser, Worlds of Childhood.

The first third of Uri Shulevitz's Writing With Pictures is essential reading for picture book writers. The next third is of tangential interest, geared more toward illustrators, and the last third--oh, please someone tell me there's going to be a revised edition that will catch up with today's printing technology. Also related to picture books, there's Maurice Sendak's wonderful Caldecott & Co.

In the inspiration department I turn to Katherine Paterson's essays, and to Scenes From a Writer's Life by Ruskin Bond. Bond is something of a national children's book treasure in India, and his work gives me hope, convinces me that story matters in this world.

For a quick mind-bender in rhyme and meter, there's nothing like Stephen Fry's wonderful The Ode Less Travelled.

And the rest, I have to confess, are all books about writing for ex-children: Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House and his other one, Subtext. Janet Burroway's standby, Fiction Writing, which offers more nuanced views of things like viewpoint and characterization than we'd find in most books that do address writing for children and young adults. Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft. John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. Rilke's Letters. Barbara's Kingsolver's essays. Some of Salman Rushdie's essays. And for the occasional (hollow) laugh, Forster's Aspects of the Novel.

Clearly there's room for a volume or two that could speak to craft in books for young readers, picture book through YA.


  1. Yes, and that's the one we're all waiting for you to write, Uma, isn't it? :) I know: you need a few more lives. Don't we all... I would add Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer to your list.

  2. Oh yes, that book....

    And you're right, Reading Like a Writer is up there next to the essays.

  3. Best I've read in a long time is James Wood's How Fiction Works. Beautiful. But I liked Subtext, too, and am looking forward to more in that series.