Kid Lit Unbound

Who's to say which books are good for children?

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Laura Skelding / Austin American Statesman / AP

A few years ago, I was asked to speak at a conference for librarians in Brooklyn. The topic was how to reach "reluctant readers" (whom I've since come to know by the more concise term boys), and the librarian who organized the discussion, a progressive woman in her 60s, framed the issue like this: boys are interested in reading about video games and sharks, but they're being handed books like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables.

I know I should be disappointed that boys are not taking to the classics, but upon hearing her assessment, I felt a thrill. My Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are full of references to video games, and there is even the occasional shark. Still, her point was understood. Kids and adults have a difference of opinion when it comes to what constitutes legitimate reading. Adults often push books that they loved as children, which, ironically, were often books that their parents weren't particularly keen on. Many of Judy Blume's books — which I devoured when I was growing up and where I found characters that were believable because they were a lot like me — caused considerable consternation when they were first published, but now they're widely accepted as an essential part of the children's literary canon. The same is true of The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even J.K. Rowling's venerated Harry Potter series caused hand-wringing over the fear that it might turn kids on to witchcraft.

As we move into the summer reading season, we shouldn't forget that what constitutes a classic is a bit of a moving target. It seems that when anything aimed at kids catches on, it causes the collective antennae of the older set to go up. As Diary of a Wimpy Kid gathered steam, I braced myself for the inevitable backlash. I consider my books to be harmless fun and wholesome entertainment, but somehow I ended up in the position of defending my writing to Barbara Walters. Later, a nationally televised news program ran a segment titled "'Wimpy Kid' with a Foul Mouth." (My inclusion of the word dork didn't sit well with them.) But eventually the clouds passed — or perhaps just moved on to settle over The Hunger Games trilogy, the dark, dystopian novels that are lighting up best-seller lists.

The truth is, I didn't set out to write for kids. I fancied my book as an epic coming-of-age story aimed squarely at adults who were feeling nostalgic for their middle-school days. But when I pitched my 1,300-page brick of a manuscript to a publisher, I was informed that I had, in fact, written a children's series. This sudden shift in perspective was disorienting, and I had to consider whether what I had written was appropriate for kids. I created the main character, Greg, as an authentic middle schooler, full of imperfections and contradictions. In fact, most of the books' humor hinges on the reader's understanding that Greg is not a fully formed human being but a work in progress. Would kids get that?

Ultimately, I decided to trust my readers to figure it out for themselves. I was happy to find that kids embraced Greg, and from talking to them, I'm confident that they're in on the joke. And looking back, I feel fortunate, because had I known I was writing for children, I would have written differently — and less honestly. I would have been tempted to write down to kids and use my standing as an adult to impart some sort of life lesson. And that approach never would have worked. Besides, the conversations that a complicated character like Greg inspires in the classroom and at the dinner table are infinitely more interesting and educational than a baked-in moral.

This is the first in a series of essays by TIME's most influential people in the world.