Friday, June 01, 2007

The Martian Chronicle...

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the fabulous book
Mars Needs Moms
by Berkeley Breathed
Shortly after that, Mr. Breathed gave an interview on NPR
and has been soundly assailed by a host of children's writers on a poplular and beloved discussion board. The primary points of criticism:

1) He bragged that he knew nothing about children's books and wrote this with ease.
2) He is a celebrity trading only on his celebrity status.
3) He claims that his idea is thoroughly original but it's not.
4) His story is too dark and meant for an adult audience.

I understand that many of us who write for children are protective of our craft and offended whenever someone who writes for adults, or who wishes to, proclaims that writing for children is easy, so perhaps they'll start with that or maybe they'll take a break from writing heady, intellectual adult stuff and write some kid fluff. As we all know, that is a huge fallacy, and my own students discovered that last semester in their Writing Children's Literature course. HOWEVER, If you listen to Mr. Breathed's interview, you will find that he was not dissing us at all.

On the first point: He found something that came more naturally to him than he expected. He began with the art and let the story unfold for him. Somepeople see in pictures first. He worked from what many of us do...his memory of childhood and his experience with his own kids.

Second: Berkeley Breathed is a Pulitzer Prize-winning artist/writer. He's not some dizzy rock diva or movie star or dope injected athelete. His celebrity, whatever that may be, stems from his talent as a writer and an artist. Yes, his work was political satire, but ironically set through the eyes of children.

Third: He did not claim that his idea had never been explored before. He said it was "an area that had not yet been wholly explored." Many Picture Books stop short of entering the darkness and exploring deeper consequences, the darker implications of life and love. Mr. Breathed was committed to the idea that he wanted to face that question head on..."would a mother really die for her child?" The answer is yes. Of course he's not going to kill her off, but he takes it to the brink, answers the question, and then offers something wonderful: growth and understanding for the child. The child comes to understand on a deeper level the committment that "bellowing broccoli bully" has for her child. She loves him beyond measure, and he loves her, too. Mr. Breathed left his publisher of 25 years over this point because it was the crux of his story. I applaud his artistic integrity.

Which leads to the fourth complaint: There is some truth in the claim that adults will be drawn to this book for their own grown-up reasons. And yes, the climax is dark and threatening. But the language, the art, the rhythm of the story is a treat for young eyes and ears. The ending is thoroughly satisfying as a happy ending. Some kids may not be ready for a dark confrontation such as this, but many are. My two children were ready, and they love this book.

So...I hope that more people will check out this book and listen to the interview with a discerning ear before they pass judgement. I do despise people who make the lame assumption that anything designed for children is by definition easier to create. We all know how much work it is raising our children. Why would creating stories for them be any easier? But writers often work in different ways, crafting their stories from different angles, starting at completely different points in the process, exploring the same themes and plots with a different eye. We must not become self-righteous in our dedication to our craft.

'Nuff said.


  1. "We all know how much work it is raising our children. Why would creating stories for them be any easier?"

    You're right about that! I've been working on a story for years now. I don't know if it will ever reach a publisher's desk, but it's given me an appreciation for the craft of writing -- for any genre. You full-time writers just amaze me.

  2. "We must not become self-righteous in our dedication to our craft."

    I love this line. I think several people out there in the world could use this advice.

  3. Nice post Mary Ann. Thanks for filing us in. It's so easy to listen to criticism and agree, yet if we haven't read the whole article ourselves, we really aren't being fair in taking a stand. I read the comments you are talking about with interest. I had already heard about the book from your Mother's Day post and interested in seeing it. I have to admit when I read discussion about the interview I wasn't quite as interested anymore. So now I've read the whole article and plan on checking out the book.

    You are so right about the fact that he was already a writer and illustrator. I find it interesting that he illustrated the story first. I know in most cases this is how I work. The images and story are intertwined from the beginning. I think it's just the way artists work. Although for me this might make the whole concept "easy" but the actual writing is just as hard.


  4. I agree with you whole heartedly. Breathed understands a child's take on things and isn't as you stated, some dizzy rock diva or athlete. He's a professional writer and artist. So what if writing his picture book came naturally for him. Why are some people so offended by that? He's not Madonna or George Foreman. Great post!


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