Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Child’s Voice

When writing stories for children the writer must be careful to not write down to them. Children may be inarticulate but they are not stupid. Theodor Geisel knew this fact when he wrote “The Cat in the Hat” under the pen name Dr Seuss. It is full of sophisticated concepts, which a child can grasp but often not speak. At the same time, we must avoid throwing too many esoteric facts in their direction without providing an active backdrop. When you were working nine-to-five as an office temp, it wasn’t any fun reading through a list of facts, and that’s true for children as well. In truth, the child’s voice in your writing is not a tightrope to walk upon, but a very fat pipe. There is plenty of leeway in either direction before the bulk of your children get bored or snowed.

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote on the sophisticated end of the age group, but his works appeal to one of the widest age ranges in the fantasy genre. He pulls characters from a quasi-mythological hat without hesitation and sprinkles the stories with concrete elements the children can hang onto. Boil down “The Hobbit” to just hobbits, dwarfs, elves, and goblins and you leave out the one thing which binds the whole series together – the ring. Tolkien didn’t start off with the intention of making the ring the central element in his stories, it just happened when he discussed “the Hobbit” with his young readers and discovered what they liked the most about the book. You may have to do this with your own books. The ring rises in prominence because every kid would like a ring which can make them invisible. Think of all the mischief you could get into if you wore such an item, then think of the draw to a child’s active mind. Bullies revenged, candy acquired, peril escaped, are just some of the many uses for which such an item might be employed. When you hear youngsters talking about their favorite movie, novel, or comic, listen for the things and events which they talk about the most. Was it the Deathstar or Lord Vader, which gathers the greatest thrill? Those key elements in the story, which survive the test, future works may refer to in ways that are more sophisticated. J. K. Rowling would know all about that. The invisibility cloak Harry Potter employs follows a similar route of discovery as Tolkien’s ring with the exception of the item’s demise. Jo decides to break the concept into three items in the end so one may be lost, one may be buried, and the best of them all, retained.

The key is to the child’s voice is to know when to show and when to tell. Suspense is a key factor as well. Too much revealed in the beginning takes away from the surprise ending, but with children you have to reveal important plot elements on a regular basis as well. In “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone” Harry is a bullied and badgered boy who lives in a terrible situation, but by the end of the first chapter enough is revealed to indicate that things might change for the better. Now if you’ve read the whole series, you would know that this in fact not the case. His life changes, some things get better but others much worse. The author does not pull any punches, and doesn’t talk down to the reader, which children and adults alike appreciate when they read it. At the same time, she doesn’t ramble off a bunch of gobbledygook. If the details are too sophisticated for your children readers, make sure to introduce them without the more esoteric aspects, but instead reveal those details throughout the story in bite-sized chunks. Dialog and circumstance should allow the child to discover things right along with the protagonist, instead of having some talking head come along and tell them everything. If Gandalf had described all of the things he knew about Bilbo’s duties in the book “The Hobbit”, the reader would have been left with very little suspense. No, Bilbo experiences these things as they come, and the reader does so vicariously as well.

If you might think picture books lack sophistication then you haven’t read “Cannonball Simp” by John Burningham. It appeals to the smallest children, yet speaks about the issues of animal abuse and neglect, and introduces unconditional love. While some editors insist on “Keeping it Simple”, many of the books in a publisher’s backlog aren’t selling because they took the assignment too far.

Anyways, do you use simple elements to construct your stories, grow suspense, and distribute clues, but don’t talk down to your audience. Kids aren’t stupid, so don’t write that way.

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