So What’s Wrong with Sweetness?

I always take it as confirmation that I have succeeded when my work is referred to as “sweet” because I believe we can use more sweetness in this world. Too often, however, sweetness is mistaken for sentimentality — which is never sweet!

I enjoy watching Russian animation on You Tube. Much of it is “Soviet” animation, done when America was in the grip of the Red Scare, yet I’m surprised by the sweetness and simplicity of these films. Many are folk and fairy tales. “The Hedgehog in the Fog” is a lovely mood piece about a little hedgehog on his way one evening to visit his friend Bearso the two of them can count the stars. He becomes lost in the fog, is frightened, and finally emerges and connects with his friend. “Vinnie Puh” – their version of “Winnie thePooh” features a decidedly Russian take on the stories that is both clever and endearing. The Czechs have their “Broucci” elf-like creatures that appear to be part insect who deal with weather issues, loss of homes, birthdays, etc. And, of course, Miazaki’s hand-drawn films such as “Ponyo” and “My Neighbor Totoro” are both observant of the way children truly are and gentle in their storytelling.

This innocence is all but absent from current American children’s films, where the characters must talk non-stop, be smart-alecky and self-aware, and where the humor is frequently mean-spirited. Are all children really so eager to be “hip,” or is this an adult projection? In a culture where the loud and the crass predominate, where children are encouraged to become “sophisticated” as quickly as possible, children’s books may be the last refuge of childhood innocence – especially in books for the very young — one reason I choose to write for this age group.

If I thought, “how adorable can I draw my character Penny in this picture?” it would read as false because I would be applying an attitude to the character, rather than allowing the attitude to arise naturally from who that character is. When characters act genuinely from who they are, they become lovable. I believe in my characters, regardless of their behavior, and hope they reflect the same respect for one another that I have for them.

Not all picture books have fully rounded characters, and not all characters have pure motives. At the core, innocence lies in the telling, in the author’s voice and intention. It is a ruthless truthfulness springing from the author’s love for and faith in the work he or she is creating.

Those of us who write for children and the parents and educators who buy books should be mindful not to confuse innocence with naiveté, sweetness with sugar There will always be work that is hollow, work that fills an immediate and transitory need to be entertained if not enlightened. And this is fine — Children should be encouraged to read at any level – if it is balanced with work that is sustaining and taken to heart, work that honors its audience. If books are produced with love they will be met with love and will be treasured for many years,

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