When I was in freezing Houston last week my host, Dorcas Hand, was kind enough to take me to various good ethnic restaurants for dinner. The Turkish food was especially good, perhaps because Dorcas has an AFS exchange student living with her who is Turkish and helped us to make good choices. Good food made time for good conversation, and as we spoke I realized something about my own passage into writing. When I started working in books for young readers at Harper back in the 1980s, I was also in graduate school getting my doctorate in history. What I had to offer was the excitement of new ideas from the academy that I hoped could be brought to younger readers. I needed to learn about children’s books, but many in the industry at the time had the idea that the author (perhaps especially of fiction) needed to keep separate from his/her readers — that the artistic autonomy of the creator must be preserved. There was something very good in that view — and it was surely an attitude developed by contrast with market-driven series fiction and other writing in which pleasing the reader was the order of the day. The same attitude ruled in the award committees where, for example, Best Books for Young Adults (which was that then, not Best Fiction) had a strict rule forbidding teenagers from speaking at the midwinter and annual meetings. None of us live and write in that sealed off world anymore.
Many of us do school visits, Skype to schools, send manuscripts to young readers, seek out responses from young people. And of course teenagers now have their own session at BFYA. Just as the surrounding world has become the land of the social network, the writer’s world has gone from the artist’s garret, the monk’s cell, to the serve and volley of the tennis court — many of us try to send out material to get responses before we publish to the world. This is good on many levels — it can bring students closer to writers, and warns writers of aspects of their work that may not connect to young readers. Just as publishers have a galley program to share books with teen reading groups, how about a ms. program where authors could list what they are writing about, and young people would ask to see this or that work-in-progress in exchange for writing up their comments and responses? Could there be a central listing somewhere — say here on the SLJ site — of what is available, what kinds of responses the author wants, and a due date for comments?
Now we do need to hold on to that hard-faught sense of autonomy that I learned in the 80s. The author needs the freedom to think, to create, to invite, to risk doing what no one has done. No focus group could create Hugo Cabret, and we need to be sure no future group of student responses discourages the next innovator. But we could formalize the tennis metaphor by creating a practice court — a place to share. Any takers?