Thursday, January 27, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from W. C. Fields

This week (January 29) marks the the 131st anniversary of the birth of W. C. Fields.

Conventional Wisdom says that it was Fields who once said, "Never act in a picture with kids or animals. They'll upstage you every time." I've since read that Conventional Wisdom was mistaken, but hey, it does seem like his style. After all, he did say, "I like children--fried."

Now personally I like being upstaged. Every so often at a school visit a child will ask if I'm famous (ha!). I always answer that I'm not and I don't want to be. I want only my work to be famous. I want my subjects to outshine me every time, and if I write well, they do.

But really, where would a children's writer be without kids or animals? They're pretty much our stock in trade. Talking pigs and pigeons, round-headed kids dragging big purple crayons--that's who we're all about, isn't it?

But I think I know what Fields meant. It's all too easy for any book with cute kids and fuzzy animals to wander into the land of the saccharine, to be just so sweet and adorable, the book loses all relevance to the real world. It's what editors mean when they say a book isn't "edgy" enough: it's just too sweet to be real.

I think any book, fiction or nonfiction, needs a balance. Even a fuzzy velveteen rabbit can have an edge.

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