On Saturday I was treated to a rather amusing insight into one of the differences between children and adults.
The event was a trip to Wellington Zoo for our daughter's upcoming 3rd birthday. We thought she'd really enjoy it since she reads so many picture books with lions, giraffes, kangaroos, monkeys etc. in them.
Fortunately our prediction was correct and she did really enjoy it...but not in the way we had expected. A giraffe standing right over her failed to impress, as did the lions, kangaroos, cheetahs, African wild dogs, sun bears, and chimpanzees!
Instead, the things that most captured and held her attention were watching the emperor penguin being operated on in the animal hospital, a random chicken on the loose, and feeding hot chips to the ducks!
It wasn't long before I realised that her experience of the zoo wasn't going to be what I thought, and perhaps hoped, it might be. She was never going to find lions, cheetahs, and kangaroos fascinating because she doesn't know enough about them to recognise how unnatural it is to have them living in New Zealand.
Furthermore, they weren't where the action was at! A chicken on the loose provided an opportunity for playing chase. The emperor penguin operation provided the chance to see something out of the ordinary...and most certainly not anything she's ever come across in a picture book before. And last - but by no means least - feeding the ducks. What (almost) 3 year old wouldn't enjoy having a couple of ducks follow your every move? She just loved feeling their beaks peck the chips from her hand!
As we continued our circuit around the zoo it was amazing how many times I overheard other parents battling the inevitable. One dad tried desperately to convince his son to have a look at the lions. He assured his son that he would be amazed by them. The son's reply 'Nah, I've seen lions on TV before.' The dad could do little more than stalk off in the direction of the lions, alone, muttering about how he hadn't seen them like this before but it was going to be his loss, grumble, grumble...
And the point of this story...as a writer it's always important to keep your readers in mind. This experience reinforced the importance of knowing the children you write for. While it's tempting to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and get down the story we want to tell, there can be no substitute for observing children and getting know and truly appreciate their reactions and interactions in different environments and settings. Ultimately it's time well invested and will lead to the production of a book that children will identify with and love reading.