An Open Letter to the Stranger Who Asked Me, “How Did You Write That Book for Children If You Don't Have Children?”
By Naseem Hrab
I realize that writing a book is kind of a self-important undertaking. When I write, I sometimes imagine that there are people out there who might actually enjoy reading my words and letting me know. And then there are other people—like you—who don’t exist in my imagination when I write. Because if I did imagine you, I would never write again.
People like you who insist on saying off-putting things to me as I sit in the sweltering sun at a literary festival trying to entice people to purchase my book with only my desperate-yet-winning smile. Off-putting things like: “Did you write that children’s book?”, “Do you have children?” and finally, “How did you write that book for children if you don't have children?”
After you ask these questions (in real life, not in my imagination), the only word that crawls out of my mouth is a “Meep!” mostly because I am a single, childless woman in her mid-thirties who is constantly second-guessing every life decision I’ve ever made thanks to the words of my dead grandmother, which continually ring in my ears: “Why you no marry yet?”
Thankfully, Stranger, I eventually come back with: “Oh, I just channel the emotions I feel when adults make me feel inadequate.” And by eventually, I mean, twenty-four sad hours later.
Even later, a bittersweet consolation prize will arrive in the form of Google search results: a list of extraordinary children’s authors who didn’t have children including Dr. Seuss, Beatrix Potter, Louisa May Alcott and Maurice Sendak! Bittersweet because it also serves as a reminder that I am not an extraordinary childless children’s author, but simply a childless children’s author.
Until you approached me, I had never asked myself why I wanted to write books for kids. I never thought to question something I’ve always wanted to do. After our little, guerilla therapy session, I did a deep dive into my psyche and I was reminded of three things:
1) All my favourite memories of reading are from childhood.
2) My all-time favourite books are all children’s books (whether I read them as a child or as a childless woman).
3) I remember a random social worker sitting down with me in an empty classroom at school and asking me whether I wanted to visit with my father and, if yes, how often. I was eight years old and my parents had recently gotten divorced. They were struggling to figure out the custody arrangement for my older brothers and me. I remember not knowing how to answer her—I wasn’t sure what the right answer was. She told me what my brothers’ plans were regarding visiting with my dad and I liked the idea of doing what my brothers were doing. I trusted them. I remember saying, “I’d like to visit my dad when Roy and Neil visit him.” And then I remember learning that the social worker completely ignored my request. I remember this experience very vividly. I can remember that I was making a solar cooker with tinfoil and cardboard when I was called down to speak with the social worker, I remember that we sat in the English as a Second Language classroom because it was empty at the time, I remember that the social worker and I sat across from each other at a large table. And, most of all, I remember feeling betrayed by an adult who was supposed to represent me and my wishes, not knowing whether I had any recourse because I was a child, and not understanding what I should have done differently to ensure that I was listened to.
I remember what it was like to be a child.
To answer your question more accurately, Stranger, I think I write for children by recalling the powerlessness that I felt as a child. Maybe I can try to help a child feel a little more empowered, a little bit less alone and, most of all, feel that they are worthy of being heard, by writing books that speak to them, not at them.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Naseem Hrab is the author of the picture books Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend and Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings, illustrated by Josh Holinaty. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Sometimes Naseem likes to get up on a stage and tell true stories. She loves improv and coffee ice cream.
She worked as a librarian for a time and currently works in children's publishing.