Writers often say ideas don’t matter, that it’s all about the execution.
It’s true, a good idea written badly is not a fun read. It’s also true that a good writer can make the most ordinary stories beautiful and intriguing. Ideas aren’t as important as execution, but ideas still matter.
The thing about good ideas is that one isn’t enough. Books that deliver on good concepts do more than just perform the idea–they follow those ideas to their ends, dragging you farther and further than you could have dreamed on your own. To a lived-in world, with specific struggles and discoveries.
5. Watership Down by Richard Adams
A harrowing cross of fantasy and realism, Watership Down puts the reader in the mind of a rabbit. I don’t mean an anthropomorphic rabbit who wears a t-shirt and watches football. These rabbits are rabbits.
They’re also brave, clairvoyant warriors.
It would be easy to write this novel tongue-in-cheek, but instead we get vivid, gripping sincerity. Adams details the texture of grasses and the patterns of flowers. He creates words like “hrair” (which means a thousand, or actually anything higher than four, since that’s as high as rabbits can count) and “elil” (who are enemies that prey on rabbits). It’s not long into the novel before you start to feel twitchy, like a prey animal yourself, bouncing through the milkwort and fallen beech leaves.
4. Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston
Zorgamazoo is written entirely in rhyming anapestic tetrametre. The same rhythm as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. I’m sure that you’re already either thrilled or repulsed, but I’ll continue.
Katrina Katrell is a clever, observant girl (common traits) who is so observant that she notices the usually hidden creatures in our world (a neat twist). This leads to her guardian deciding that she needs a lobotomy (amazing twist). The adventure gets pretty crazy and exciting. This isn’t just a novel that rhymes. It’s a novel that uses rhyme to enhance the telling.
To build on the action, the words even change font and size.
It’s hard to do this justice until you see it on the page and read it out loud. Here’s a clip from the audio book.
3. Nate the Great Series: written by Marjorie W. Sharmat, illustrated by Marc Simont
With the first book in 1972, Nate the Great wasn’t the first detective for kids, but I think he’s the epitome of the genre. It’s the perfect fit for an early reader series. The short, snappy sentences help the tone and humour. Episodic adventures without violence let the series go on and on.
Furthermore, Nate the Great has attitude. He has rivals. He doesn’t want to take the case. He has a dog named Sludge. And in the necessary detective scene when he lays out all the clues–he eats a pile of pancakes.
2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
People made a big deal about how The Graveyard Book was riffing on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book–which it absolutely is–but I feel like they ignored how awesome the concept actually was: a living boy is raised by ghosts.
It’s not just a good concept because it’s spooky. It’s a good concept because it inherently brings up interesting themes. Parenthood. Identity. Mortality. Loneliness. Regret.
And Gaiman takes them far. The Jungle Book is done with Mowgli after a couple chapters, and then we get seals, a mongoose, and an elephant trainer. We get to see Bod at different stages in his life, dealing with a wider array of problems. We also get more personal relationships, as other characters age too.
1. The Magic School Bus Series: written by Joanna Cole, illustrated by Bruce Degan
The original Magic School Bus Series is only ten books long, but that bus has a story engine that has churned out six other book series and a beloved television show.
The field trip is a natural way to explore science and connect to kids’ real lives. It creates a lot of possibilities. The iconic school bus’s transformations are adorable. We get to feel like a kid in the class. The final page that explains where, when, and why the story bent reality is a beautiful wrap-up.
And while it’s not exactly a part of the book, let’s not forget that killer theme song…
More Great Story Ideas: Go Away Unicorn, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Flat Stanley, Uglies, The Keeper of the Isis Light, The Giver, Tuck Everlasting, The Hunger Games, Silverwing, Captain Underpants, Ella Enchanted, Bunnicula, The Hunchback Assignments, etc…
My next post will consider Pixar, and the studio’s ability to deliver great concepts and stories using an idea they call “simplexity”.