Capturing what it's like to be a kid
Trying to write through the eyes of a child is typically the domain of fiction writers, not journalists. We are supposed to be sober, evenhanded, and informative. In other words, we are supposed to be adults. But trying to capture the idiosyncratic inner logic and wonder of being a child using the same techniques one would use to cover a three-alarm fire, a political stump speech or an accounting scandal may seem futile. For starters, the word "magical" gets thrown around perhaps a bit too much. But sometimes, journalists seeking to get inside the life of a child manage to make it work.
The latest such attempt comes from Washington Post Style writers Monica Hesse, DeNeen Brown, and Dan Zak, who have profiled four different 10-year-olds as part of a series called "Being 10 in 2010."
Their goals are modest, as they explain in their intro:
We won't pretend that the three profiles of Washington-area children we publish here reflect every 10-year-old, or even most of them. Nothing that grand. But we'd still venture to say that, despite all the bad influences and grown-up-world worries that surround kids today, there remains something timeless and magical about being 10.
The progenitor of this mini-genre, as far as I know, is the great New Yorker writer Susan Orleans, who when tasked with writing a profile of then-child actor Macaulay Culkin, persuaded her bosses to let her instead profile an average boy. The result was "The American Male at Age Ten."
The beginning is priceless:
If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks. We would wear shorts, big sneakers, and long, baggy T-shirts depicting famous athletes every single day, even in the winter. We would sleep in our clothes. We would both be good at Nintendo Street Fighter II, but Colin would be better than me. We would have some homework, but it would not be too hard and we would always have just finished it. We would eat pizza and candy for all of our meals. We wouldn't have sex, but we would have crushes on each other and, magically, babies would appear in our home.
It's tough to outdo Orleans, and probably foolish to even try. Profiles of the non-famous are her sweet spot. For my money, though, the person who came the closest is my former Washington City Paper colleague Laura Lang whose profile of then seven-year-old Nile Ruff is, in the words of one of my former editors, a real peach.
Here is a sampling:
We're out in her front yard one sunny Sunday afternoon. She drags me to the curb and points out the remains of a shattered car window. The car is gone, the victim of vandals or a smash-and-grab. Little, smooth-edged bits of glass--the treated kind that won't cut skin when it's broken--are scattered all over the pavement and the grass. Nile calls them crystals. She scoops them up by the handful and sprinkles some on a couple of budding violets along the walkway to her house, hoping the magic will help the plants grow. She stuffs the rest in the pockets of her jeans. She'll save a little magic for later.
Sometimes it just feels great to be a kid again.
| December 6, 2010; 12:26 PM ET
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