The one American writer blessed with the most talent for writing children's books never wrote a children's book.
The more I talk to children's writers and read children's lit, the more I realize Ernest Hemingway could have been the Papa of all kid's books.I.B. Singer once listed half a dozen reasons why children make the best critics. Children love interesting stories, he said, not commentary, guides and footnotes. Children don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity, they don't read "Finnegan's Wake" or Kafka, and they yawn openly without shame or embarrassment when a book bores them.
Hemingway would have played right into their hands.
To begin with, Ernest Hemingway - like the best children's writers - put his thinking into the storyline and into his characters. He never stopped in the middle of a book for long, philosophical digressions about the people, the situation or the fate of the universe.
Hemingway was also master of "showing" rather than simply telling. He wouldn't say "Harv was tall," for instance, he'd say "Harv walked into the room. He had to duck under the door frame."
Hemingway was very visual. He tried to write the way Cezanne painted, he once said, and that led him to think in terms of pattern, images, colors and the "layering" of design.
Hemingway was economical. Perhaps more than any other American writer, he got the most out of the least amount of language. When he describes a room, he gives you two or three details at most and boom! you see the room.
He does the same with characters. He hands you one or two observations about them and you have a fix on them for life. That's how Scott O'Dell, Paul Fleischman, Barbara Parks and other fine children's writers work.
Hemingway's dialogue is short, punchy and understandable. He didn't focus on language itself. He focused on the way various people use language.
But most of all, Hemingway wrote on many levels. You can can keep appreciating him as you learn more about the world. "The Old Man and Sea" is a wonderful fish story that many people can enjoy. But as readers mature, they begin to see that the story is really about dignity and pride. It is an allegory for the entire struggling, bumbling, determined, noble human race. But you don't need to know that to enjoy the book.
In the end, writing children's books is a little like writing songs. You can be original and inventive, but you need to work within a framework. You have to be able to distinguish between a cliche and a convention. In kids' books you need to keep a certain suspense in things by foreshadowing events, you need to keep the prose and the plot moving along, to let the characters "act out" their fears, ambitions, affections and anger and never worry what anyone thinks about your work except that kid holding and reading your book.
Hemingway did all that better than any writer I've read.
He'd have been a blockbuster children's author.