SLANT LETTER: Respect Your Reader
Learning from Beverly Cleary’s legacy of writing UP, never down, to her readers.
I think it was the year I reached double digits, when my bangs were stringy and my freckles were in full force and I didn’t care about any of these things. It was the safe zone before the tribulations of middle school (before, sadly, I tried erasing said freckles with lemon juice). That year, I auditioned for a community theatre play and got the starring role of none other than Ramona Quimby. AND my older sister Allison got the role of Beezus. One could argue whether we were really acting at all.
I was a huge fan of Beverly Cleary’s books, and my sister can attest I had some very strong Ramona the Pest vibes already going for me (like Ramona, I spent my childhood as the middle kid between two sisters). Beverly definitely had my number when she characterized Ramona: "She means well, but she always manages to do the wrong thing. She has a real talent for it."
I wore overalls and saddle oxfords, got to snack down a nutter-butter (an edible prop!) at every show, and generally had the time of my little life misbehaving for a live audience who was rooting for this loveable, imperfect protagonist. (If you want photo evidence, I’ve got it!)
Beverly Cleary, who passed away recently at 104 years old yet ever the child at heart, was known for the realism of her writing. She created child protagonists who were not dropped into some fantasyland but lived in the neighborhood. And their inner worlds were the most relatable of all: children who want to be loved, aspire to be grown-up like the big kids, who hunger for adventure or misadventure, depending on who you ask.
“I wrote books to entertain,” she said, “I’m not trying to teach anything!” Speaking of her reading habits as a child, she said, “If I suspected the author was trying to show me how to be a better behaved girl, I shut the book.”
While humorous, I find a revelation for writers—of children’s literature or not—in Cleary’s confession. No reader wants to be sold to, strong-armed, or talked down to. Readers don’t want to be cornered into a narrator’s didactic project; they want to be invited into a story that’s all at once bigger than themselves and willing to address them respectfully at eye-level.
The most beloved children’s authors all have this in common: they invariably write up to their readers. They respect them, which is another way of saying they make space for their characters—and by proxy, their readers—to be who they are, without imposing a manufactured moral of the story.
I find child and adult readers alike have strong sensitivities to being told how to behave. There’s certainly a place for prescription, but not before the reader’s trust has been rightly earned. A tip you can try in your own work: perform a keyword search of “should” and “must” in your document, to see if you have welcomed your reader in as they are before gearing into prescriptive imperatives, and to smoke out any overuse.
Ramona might be an icon for us of what we all long for as readers: for someone to make space for imperfect characters to be who they are.
We tend to remember conclusions we’ve worked out for ourselves far better than pre-packaged imperatives that have been handed to us without a fight. Writers, then, can best love and dignify their readers by making space for them to be who they are, to get in the fight for themselves, and to take what they need from your words.
In fact, I’m convinced there may be no better way to love your reader than to let her do the math for herself. You can accomplish this by:
Honoring the difference between storytelling as a tool for behavior modification and an open space for transformation.
Giving her permission to show up at her most Ramona-esque.
Supporting him to take what he needs from your writing even more than what you intended for him to take from it.
Trusting her intelligence rather than insulting it through over-explaining.
Writing in a way that roots for your reader’s becoming. This one is key.
Readers can easily intuit whether you are writing in a way that is angling for their behavior control, or rooting for their becoming.
If we want to be writers of the latter, this begins with practicing authentic compassion for ourselves. I’ve seen this too many times. If a writer is harsh on themselves, they will inevitably be harsh on their reader. Too many writers overplay self-deprecation, thinking they’re being humble, while not realizing that by passing judgment on themselves they are extending judgment over their readers.
I wish I could remember where I read this, but somewhere I encountered a marriage therapist’s advice to keep a childhood photo of your partner within view in your home, to engender compassion for them when conflict arises. This strikes me as not only great advice for couples, but for all of us.
I wonder: what would happen to your writing if you were to type under the gaze of your seven-year-old self? How might your language change if you wrote with the depth of compassion you have for your sweet, young self and let this carry toward compassion for your reader, each of whom has a tender childhood of their own?
I might just print out this photo of my own Ramona moment, and see for myself.
Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
P.S. // A Prayer for Writers
SLANT LETTER is for the craft and soul of what you do as a writer. So for each issue, I want to focus on an element of the craft as well as a prayer for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk. I hope this will refresh you as it does for me.
Find a Good Thing Here?
This letter is this editor's off-hours labor of love. If you've found something useful here, please pass it on! You can forward this message to a writer friend, share this post, or the subscribe link here.