Elizabeth Explains

Science Stories and More ——— From Elizabeth Deatrick

Writing About Children: A Grown-Up’s Dilemma


Kayakers on Ann Arbor’s Huron River. Photo Credit: Flickr user Barbara Eckstein.

One vibrant spring day in 2008, I was walking through the Michigan woods with my teenaged peers, laughing and joking about trout fishing–and subconsciously trying to flee a well-intentioned reporter. Our local writing organization, 826michigan, was holding a Hemingway workshop in a pavilion by the Huron River, where we wrote silly six-word stories, described the woods in stilted terms, and then learned how to kayak. It was all good fun, until the woman from Michigan Radio showed up.

Jennifer Guerra is a great reporter; even back then, I was familiar with her work. She came to our pavilion, hoping to record our thoughts on Hemingway, and bringing a portable recorder and a friendly demeanor. But in those days, I was still horribly self-conscious–so I immediately clammed up and stayed as far away from the mic as I could. The terse, awkward soundbites I provided never made it on the air. Listening to the final broadcast, I was disappointed at the absence of my voice… even if I knew it was my own fault.

Just seven years and a graduate degree later, I found myself in the reporter’s shoes, as I drafted an article, “Kids Welcome Birds Back With Precious Postcards,” for Audubon’s website. Over 70 kids in Wisconsin had hand-drawn postcards to welcome migratory birds back to their state, and it was my job to summarize the project for our website. At first, I was thrilled to get this adorable assignment… but the more time I spent on it, the harder the project became.

I kept thinking back to that sunny Michigan afternoon so long ago, and my frustration at being left out. Sure, at the time I was older than the Wisconsin kids are now–but the parallels seemed obvious to me. I was going to have to leave most of the kids out; I’d have to limit my quotes to one or two postcards. The art department would include a slideshow of the others… but even then, not every postcard would be featured. How was I supposed to pick which kids to highlight? Would the ones I left out feel ignored, or even inferior? How could I give the younger kids a chance against the more articular, older classes?

In the end, though, I wasn’t writing this piece for the children. I quashed my worries, and chose the quotes that best told the story to the hundreds of adult Audubon members who visit our website. After all, some postcards simply conveyed the overall tone of the project more succinctly than others. It felt a little callous–but the piece was better off for it.

I’ve tried to console myself with another childhood memory: once the initial disappointment of that Hemingway radio broadcast had passed, I walked away still feeling special. Even if my voice never made it to the airwaves, somebody from “The Media,” that nebulous entity that plucks ordinary people from obscurity, had decided that my life was worth talking about. And these kids from Wisconsin are certainly worth talking about: not only are the postcards beautiful, but they represent an optimism and passion for the natural world that many adults simply can’t muster anymore. I only wish I could have included them all.

The Huron River, which runs through Ann Arbor. Photo Credit: Flickr user Andypiper.

The Huron River, in one of its wide, placid stretches. Photo Credit: Flickr user Andypiper.


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This entry was posted on August 6, 2015 by in Blog Posts, Etcetera and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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