Flaws in the Disney Machine

Hello dead horse. I am here to beat you. Because I think it’s important and there are some parts of you that aren’t really that beaten yet.

“Did you know Disney films have a history of racism and sexism!?”

There is so, so much to talk about, and a lot of it has already been discussed elsewhere. (The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters, Head Animator Says Women Are Hard to Draw Because They All Look the SameMerida’s Stupid Offensive Makeover, etc.)

I echo their horror; however, in the interest of original content, I’m going to focus on some areas that haven’t received as much attention. Before diving in, I’d like to note that I consider myself a Disney fan: Winnie the Pooh, The Lion King, Lilo and Stitch, etc.

Disney’s Globetrotting

One of Disney’s greatest possible strengths is the diversity of locations they use for their films.

Map by reddit user translucentfish

This could, if done right, bring a vibrant array of cultures to the screen. It could unite people and spread magic. If you listen to animators talk about their work on The Emperor’s New Groove during the documentary The Sweatbox, it’s clear that’s how they see their work.

However, Sting disagrees. In a candid moment after they’ve revealed the then-current ending as “Kuzco gets a waterslide”, Sting addresses the camera:

“It’s a real concern of mine that I’m allied to this organization that seems to want to take the best of different cultures and suck them up and then spit them out to make something that’s like a hamburger.”

I encountered another way of phrasing this criticism in Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. They discuss three ways to write about a culture that is not your own: as an invader, as a tourist, or as a guest.

Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.

This is the way that Disney writes about other cultures. They send artists to scout locations, but then pick and choose the details of culture that work best for their films. The worst example of this is probably Pocahontas (although the distinction for worst portrayal of First Nations people still goes to Peter Pan).

That’s from 1953, and perhaps unfair to today’s animators and story people, but still.

Disney’s goal is not to widen acceptance or understanding of the cultures they write about. Their goal is to make a film that is well received by their market.

Toys

And what a market it is. This Christmas, when I went to Toys R’ Us to buy a gift for my niece, I was a little horrified at the gigantic Disney Princess display that devoured the front of the store. I don’t have a picture of the exact display, but it was similar to this picture from the Toys R’ Us website.

fun note: all white, blondes in centre

The depiction of Merida pains me particularly, but the marketing to children of this image of femininity bothers me as a whole. As other bloggers have noted, it undermines any positive female characters they manage to create in their films because they’re eventually going to get reduced into photoshopped wide-eyed princesses with sparkles shooting out of their ears.

The thing is… people buy these toys. Despite videos of some kids complaining…

…there are other kids and parents who fully embrace this image. Which leads into another larger conversation I’m not ready to dive into right now. Are they making this stuff because people want it, or do people want it because this is what has been made for decades?

How can we convince them that people are also willing to buy things that are different? Like a doll of Merida that looks like the Merida from the film?

Who is Disney? Who is their Market?

One of the things I try to remember when raging against Disney stories is that Disney is not one person. Disney stories are made by a whole bunch of people who flow between Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar. This makes it a little harder to blame all of past-Disney’s mistakes on current-Disney’s story team, which is actually improving.

There’s also a distinction between Disney’s filmmakers, and their toymakers, and their marketers, and their television shows. It’s unfair to expect any single person working at Disney to undo the entire Disney Machine.

Parts of the Disney Machine are producing pretty good stuff. Frozen is a solid step forward. It’s not where I want them to be yet, (see the article where the animator talked about trouble drawing women because they have to be cute) but I’m a believer that you have to reward steps forward in order to encourage further steps forward. It’s also a fun movie, plain and simple.

As another example, consider Disney’s current big shows for preschool:

Left: Jake and the Never Land Pirates. Right: Sofia the First

Jake and the Never Land Pirates has a diverse cast of kids! I feel like it’s one of the first stories set in the Peter Pan world that I actually support. It’s magic, it’s fun, it’s inviting. Sofia the First is… well, all the usual Disney Machine problems. I’m peeved it beat Bubble Guppies for the Annie Award.

The machine has already changed over time, and it’s improving. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’ll ever catch up to where I want it to be, because there are sections of the machine designed for a market that is very not me.

That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the things (or parts of things) the machine manages to produce that I like.

Next time I’ll look at someone who I think handled these issues (and others) much better, with a breakdown of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

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On Diversity in Children’s Literature

A year and a half ago, NPR’s list of 100 “Best-Ever Teen Novels” was blasted by teachers and writers as being extremely white. Out of the 100 books on the list, only two were about characters of color: House on Mango Street by Sanra Cisneros and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Blame was laid on the editors of the list and the voters. Better lists have definitely been made. A lot of great books with diversity were ignored while the list contains many novels that are actually middle-grade or adult. They also repeat a lot of authors (ex. John Green five times).

However, the problem isn’t just with NPR or their list-making procedures. Literature for children and teens is pretty homogenous. Particularly fantasy, which, like adult fantasy, tends to be Eurocentric.

That’s not to say there are no good fantasy books starring other ethnicities…

difx

I’m saying there still aren’t enough yet. The books above are all pretty recent. I think the situation is improving, but walking through a bookstore, it’s very hard to find covers featuring characters who aren’t white–especially in the middle-grade/young-adult fantasy section.

I don’t want to make too big a deal about the fact that the characters’ faces are obscured on The Savage Fortress and The Summer Prince because there are a lot of white characters who have their faces obscured as well. It’s a trend in cover art. I don’t want to make a big deal, but I feel like it is important. Both Liar by Justine Larbalestier and Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore feature black protagonists, but the original covers were blatantly white-washed. Outcry from blogs like Reading in Color eventually caused the covers to change.

Larbalestier objected to this cover. She didn’t want Micah’s face on the cover at all.

Reading in Color also has an interesting post on the new cover given to Cindy Pon’s paperback after initial sales for Silver Phoenix were slow.

The author’s response can be found here.

So yeah. Visibility is still a problem.

I find it hard to fault people for not knowing about books with diverse characters when I actively hunt for them and still have trouble finding the kind of stuff I’m looking for.

The books I’ve chosen to feature in today’s post are all fantasy books about people of color, written by people of color (except Justine Larbalestier, who I used for the first cover example). That’s an important part of racefail–that we need to hear from people with different voices, not just imaginings about them.

Straight white abled authors (like me) writing about diverse characters are also out there, and I think they’re doing good work. Still, the main point of my post today can be summed up as “It isn’t enough… yet.”

Next post will continue on mainstream treatment of diversity by tackling one of the juggernauts… Disney.

Why Love Triangles Aren’t Triangular

Minor Spoilers for Spider-Man and Boy Meets Boy

You know what’s almost never shaped like a triangle? A love triangle. Think about it–they’re almost always shaped like Vs, or maybe (in theory) an hourglass.

love V

love hourglass

Even when the people involved aren’t heterosexual, you’re unlikely to get a triangle. Think about the “love triangle” in Boy Meets Boy.

still not a triangle!

There’s no reason we couldn’t have an arrow between Kyle and Noah to complete the triangle. And there’s another gay boy in the novel named Tony. Why not throw him in there too and get some crazy X’d off square?

Because it wouldn’t make the story better. Depending on where you are on the love V, you either fight to win somebody’s heart, or you feel like yours in torn in half because you have to choose. Completing the triangle would make things muddier.

Character A: I’m fighting so hard to make B love me! But… well, I guess I can go with C.

Character B: Oh no, I have to choose between A and C! Or… wait, they chose each other. I guess my choice wasn’t necessary after all.

A full triangle actually alleviates tension. They can create chaos and unexpected reversals (ex. Being John Malkovich), and it can be argued that this muddiness is a more accurate reflection of what life and love feel like. It depends on the kind of story you want to write. This muddiness often comes at the cost of thematic clarity. 

This is also the reason we are more likely to have love Zs than love hourglasses. 

Korra Z

The team from Avatar Korra. Sorry, Bolin, nobody likes you romantically, despite what the fansites want to believe.

Let’s consider Boy Meets Boy. In our diagram, Paul is at the apex of the V, so you’d expect him to have to choose. But notice the arrow only goes from Kyle to Paul, and not back from Paul to Kyle. Paul is actually fighting to be with Noah: being with Kyle is never truly considered. His relationship with Tony creates another obstacle to being with Noah, because of a misunderstanding.

Bang! All the tension is in one place. Paul wants Noah, but he’s got obstacles.

When we think of a HERO, a super awesome person leading by example, they usually have to choose.

1) Superman: Wonder Woman or Lois Lane? 2) Spider-Man: Gwen Stacy or Mary-Jane Watson? 3) Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel or Spike? 4) Katniss Everdeen: Peeta Malark or Gale Hawthorne?

I think this works for me when the characters chosen between reflect a choice in values. Wonder Woman and Lois Lane show a value in superpowers vs. humanity. Peeta vs. Gale emphasizes showy displays of emotion and sacrifice vs. passion and history.

This does not work for me when the characters chosen between are interchangeable babes, or when it doesn’t suit the character to be in a choosey position.

If we take the theme of Spider-Man as “with great power there must also come–great responsibility!” then it doesn’t make sense for him to be in a position of power, choosing. He should be fighting his butt off to have a somewhat normal life.

Which is how things start with Gwen Stacy. Spider-Man’s superhero identity gets in the way of their relationship several times, ultimately ending in her death. Later, Mary-Jane’s fierce independence brings up new struggles related to responsibility and independence.

Each relationship works, and they even have some nice obstacles in the form of competition from Harry Osborne and Flash Thompson. But when you put them together, we lose theme.

Basically…

This is more complicated, but less compelling. (Spectacular Spider-Man, 2008)

This is clearer and more tense. (Ultimate Spider-Man, 2012)

My main comment is that I think the Spider-Man story works better if Gwen Stacy and Mary-Jane Watson do not overlap. You’ll notice that usually they don’t: they haven’t in the movies yet. And Spectacular Spider-Man (depicted above) actually made Mary-Jane seem to not be interested in anybody, and then they moved her to a different school. Spidey, despite appearances, never really had the choice.

There are so many spins on the Spider-Man story that a few times you get spidey in a position of power. This can be push and pull, making the story into a roller coaster. It’s true that having a blast is part of the Spider-Man character (see professional wrestling, pre-ghost). So let me add a caveat to my stance: 

Gwen Stacy, Mary-Jane and Spider-Man can work as a love triangle, but only if it’s for a short amount of time, and we have Spider-Man fighting his butt off for each of them, never really in a position to simply choose what he wants.

I talked a bit about heroes today. In two weeks I’ll list off my top five heroes in children’s lit!

Learning from Marvel: Ghosts

 

Marvel has a bajillion superheroes, so I’m not going to tackle all of them. Even single heroes exist in multiple universes (I’m serious) so I’ll keep to the most canonical arcs.

Here are today’s examples:

Based on my discussion with friends about my previous post on ghosts in Pixar’s works, it’s worth restating that a tragic backstory event does not automatically function as a ghost. My example in Pixar’s canon was Remy’s loss of his colony. Similarly, Superman’s whole planet got blown up, but that isn’t really the reason he saves earth. He saves earth because it’s the right thing to do. The thing he’s running from is himself, the idea that people will discover his true identity.

Almost all Marvel characters have something tragic in their backstory, and I’m not enough of a fanboy to precisely lay down all the ones that qualify as ghosts and which don’t. For example, I can’t tell if Ironman’s looming death is the reason he fights, or if that’s just something he decides to do because he can. I’m not sure if Wolverine fights Magneto because he feels traumatized by Weapon X and his lack of past, or because he wants to protect other mutants, more like Superman.

It is completely possible to have a good character and a great story without using a ghost to drive them. But let’s see how it helped to develop two of Marvel’s most enduring heroes.

Captain America

Captain America’s ghost is his past as a weak, scrawny kid who got picked on and wasn’t allowed to join the military. He also witnessed the abuse of his mother, which he was unable to stop. He turns into super beefy awesome soldier and… well, what could he possibly have to learn? What is the inner trauma that he has to heal?

You’d think that he would have to accept himself as super beefy awesome guy, and the movie experimented with that, but it’s not the arc that works best for him. When Captain America is at his best, he is moral authority. Rather than having to overcome his past as a skinny kid, the knowledge of what it’s like to be abused gives him sympathy for others and wisdom.

click for big

While, yes, like many, I find the idea of a character named Captain America acting as moral authority somewhat problematic, most instances I’ve seen handle him well. For the record, it’s not enough for me that the character is separated from the government. He’s still tied to an idea that “America” is a thing, and a good thing, and that’s the part I take issue with: American Exceptionalism.

Spider-Man

Spider-Man’s ghost is interesting because it happens AFTER his inciting incident. The story starts when he gets bitten by the radioactive spider. And then we have a few story beats of Spider-Man just being awesome. Learning to swing from buildings, fooling around with professional wrestling, throwing the school bully in a locker. Whoo!

But… while he’s having fun, he lets a petty thief run past him, and that thief later kills his uncle Ben. Spider-Man’s ghost isn’t just his uncle’s death, it’s the fact it could have been prevented. And with this new ghost, we get the most powerful theme statement for any superhero story: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

I’m into the Spider-Man character, even if I don’t find a lot of the stories involving him very satisfying. His ghost doesn’t force him to make difficult choices very often (blonde or redhead?) but it does layer the pressure on his shoulders. Which works especially well for Peter Parker as a teenager. Homework. Bullies. Money. Identity. Supervillains.

And then a beautiful saucy redhead comes out of nowhere and loves him.

HOW DOES THAT FIT THE THEME?

Ugh. Peter Parker, Mary-Jane Watson, and Gwen Stacey do NOT work as a love triangle. Or maybe I just hate a certain kind of love triangle. This could be a whole ‘nother post.

Come back in two weeks when I rant about love triangles.

Breakdown: Wreck-It Ralph

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

Huge ones for Wreck-It Ralph, and some smaller ones for Tangled, Bolt, Toy Story, Up, and Brave.

You’ve been warned…

Symbols

This is were we left off last time…

Stories are often about choices. In order to make these choices more visible, symbols are often created for the ideas that a protagonist is choosing between. In Wreck-It Ralph, we have the Hero Medal and (what I’ll call) the Vanillope Medal.

The Hero Medal symbolizes respect and validation. It functions differently for Vanillope (as a coin that lets her buy a car); symbolically, however, it works the same way, since the car is her way to get validated. We could argue that the car turns out to mean more than that, but her initial urge for the medal is the same as Ralph’s.

The Vanillope Medal symbolizes friendship and compassion. When Ralph smashes Vanillope’s car, he’s wearing the Vanillope Medal, but in the scene immediately after, he’s wearing the Hero Medal. He then, in rejection of his ambition, hurls the Hero Medal away, which reveals the truth about Vanillope. In other words, the medals show us where Ralph is positioned in his arc, and then the story rewards him for giving up on validation.

Ultimately the day must be saved by using the “correct” symbol. Before punching through the Mentos roof, Ralph clutches the green heart of the Vanillope Medal in his fist.

Symbols are often consulted in place of “mentor characters” to re-affirm a decision, or to push a protagonist in the story’s required direction. The most elegant symbol in Pixar’s canon is the name ANDY written on Woody’s boot. It’s a reminder of his character’s spine “do what’s right for my child”.

The depiction of choices in Up is equally strong: when Carl has to choose between saving his house for Ellie or saving Kevin for Russell; and then the reversal when he sits in his house, between Ellie’s book and Russel’s sash of badges.

First he chooses the “wrong” thing, and then he chooses “correctly”. His choices move us from Act 2 into Act 3.

The same as Ralph’s.

Characters

The characters in Wreck-It Ralph are not simplexified in the way I discussed last post. Sure, Ralph is big and Felix is small. We could discuss Vanillope’s glitch. But the most apparent connection to make with the four leads is to their voice actors.

They’re less cartoony than Pixar’s usual work, and make more use of the actor’s known facial expressions and mannerisms. For me, the gee-shucks optimism of Jack McBrayer works the best, especially the scenes with him in jail.

I don’t have a complaint about this. I like all the actors, and I think they helped make the film more human. My problem with the characters is the characterization of the women, which is a problem I have with almost everything from Hollywood.

Why would I have a problem with Vanillope and Calhoun? Vanillope is adorable and determined. She has agency over her own plotline. Calhoun is a tough woman, showing that men aren’t the only ones capable of blasting aliens.

True, sure, but Calhoun’s main plotline is that she’s traumatized over her husband’s death. (The depiction of which I do find very funny.) She’s broken in a way that requires a new man to “fix” her. And she’s never really showing us that women are tough, she’s showing us that Calhoun is an exception, which is why we get comedy from her performance. Get it? It’s funny that a woman could be this tough. And she still wants a guy, just like every woman, right?

I’d like Vanillope if she wasn’t cute and she didn’t turn into a princess at the end.

I am so hard to please. What do I want? If I don’t want female characters who are perfect or broken or squeamish or tough, what do I want?

I want them to be real. I don’t want the problems they have to be quirks that make them cute. I want them to be allowed to have problems that are NOT attractive.

Like who?

Top: Merida from Brave. Middle: Chihiro/Sen from Spirited Away. Bottom: Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

How about female animated characters who aren’t the leads?

Top: Tigress from Kung-fu Panda. Middle: Jade from Jackie Chan Adventures. Bottom: Dory from Finding Nemo.

Tigress is actually a surprisingly good character, but I’m scared they’ll mess it up and have her marrying Po before the end of Kung-Fu Panda 3. These females have strengths, but also flaws. They have individual goals, hopes, and beliefs that do not involve romance. 

Like real people.

Sorry, what? Wreck-It Ralph? Oh yeah, that’s what I’m supposed to be writing about. 

The Villains

Wreck-It Ralph makes use of what I refer to as “villain swallowing”. Early in the plot, there are multiple villains, so it feels like danger presses in on all sides. Later, to have a more focused climax, one villain swallows the others, becoming supreme.

In Tangled‘s Act 2, we’re running from Rapunzel’s mom, Flynn’s thief buddies, and Max the horse. By Act 3, it’s resolved to just Mother Gothel, as she’s knocked out the thieves, and the horse has joined the heroes.

Wreck-It Ralph takes villain swallowing more literally.

These guys…

become this…

They seriously just fuse together.

The result is an insane, endlessly evil, soul-sucking, generic super-villain. It’s barely a person at this point. Completely unsympathetic.

I find it interesting that Pixar’s list of things to avoid when making Toy Story stated that they didn’t want a villain. I’d love to hear John Lasseter discuss how he feels about using villains now.

Also, I’m curious how he would define “a villain”.

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that he never wrote a story with a villain in it, and that it was because of something he learned in college after the war. Personally, I would classify Dwayne Hoover, Paul Lazzaro, and the Handicapper General as villains. That’s me.

The fact that they’re round characters with human motivations doesn’t change my mind. I think that just means they’re good villains.

If we only consider characters villains after they become unredeemable then I think villains become a less interesting idea. I think almost all of Pixar’s movies have villains, although in some cases (Toy Story 2, Up, Brave) they aren’t revealed until Act 3.

Some of those might have been better without the villain fight in Act 3, but it’s hard to say. Mark Andrews has said that Mar’du was a late addition to Brave, because the third act wasn’t working.

I don’t know. Monsters University is probably their movie that gets closest to not having a villain, and its third act is amazing. Bolt did pretty well without one too.

I don’t like generic super-villains and that’s what Mar’du is. That’s what King Candy becomes. In comparison, when we see Ralph identify himself as a “bad guy” in the beginning, it seems even more obvious that he’s not.

However, we probably didn’t need this contrast for a satisfying end. Characters should be challenged by their opposites, and Ralph’s opposite isn’t generic evil. It was Felix.

Final Thoughts

In talking about Wreck-It Ralph, I’ve wandered quite a bit. There’s almost as much discussion of other movies as the one under close examination.

As I’ve said, my brain likes categories and connections. This is kind of the way I think. Next time I do a close look I might jump around again, or I might tighten my lens and get into smaller details.

For next week though…

On September 6th, we’ll continue our look at villains with a countdown of five great villains from the most popular children’s series of all time: Harry Potter.

Five Great Story Concepts

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”.

 

Outlining for my Inner Child: Part 2

In part one I considered the difference between writers who proceed by outline and by discovery. In part two, we’ll look at imagined audiences: a classroom of kids, and the author’s younger self.

A lot of children’s writers have worked as teachers. It makes sense that people who like kids and care about kids would want to work with kids. It also makes sense that a person who has experience focusing a classroom would be able to know what they want. Whenever Rick Riordan questions whether to cut a boring part, he imagines that squirming kid at the back of the room, and there’s no question. (Relevant 0:15-0:30.)

Robert Munsch takes this a step further. When on book tours, he often stayed with families and ended up using those children in his stories. His first picture books were written orally, telling them to daycare kids. He revised based on reactions, and included visceral sound effects in his work. (This brings up the performative nature of picture books, which I’ll do another post about later.)

On his website, you can hear him read them all. Highly recommended. (Unfortunately, I can’t find any videos of full readings. Here’s a snippet from the Toronto Star.)

This undeniably works. It also seems to refute the common advice to write your stories for one particular person, because you’ll fail if you try to please everyone.

Other children’s writers do aim for smaller crowds. Often, family. After Kenneth Oppel starts drafting, he reads his novels to his kids and (like Munsch) revises based on their reactions.

But not everyone who writes for children feels the need to run their ideas past kids. Last year at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, Shane Peacock, the author of The Boy Sherlock Holmes Series, was quite adamant that he did not care what anyone else thought he should write. He will write what he thinks is interesting. And as he read a dark, description heavy passage on the discovery of an eyeball in a cobblestone alley–everyone in the theatre was riveted.

Let’s go a further, because perhaps while Peacock wouldn’t ask for advice, he might still imagine a kid audience he’s trying to please. You can’t get clearer than Maurice Sendak’s denials that he doesn’t consciously write for children (1:15-1:50).

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book. I don’t know how to write a children’s book. How do you write about that? How do you set out to write a children’s book? It’s a lie.”

Or how about this Sendak quote from the Believer?

“I never started out as a children’s book artist. What is a children’s-book artist? A moron! Some ugly fat pip-squick of a person who can’t be bothered to grow up. That’s the way we’re treated in the adult world of publishing. […] I’m an illustrator. I have to accept my role. I will never kill myself like Vincent van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie-book person. It sounds like I’m complaining, but it has no effect on me. I have a good life.”

Then there’s Katherine Paterson, who replied when asked if it got harder to write for kids after her own children had left the house, “I never wrote for them. I always write for the child in me, and she is still in there.”

Peacock, Sendak, and Paterson seem to be driven by more personal inclinations than Riordan, Munsch or Oppel. What’s the result?

It might correspond with another shift. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Ursula Nordstrom at Harper’s edited and published what she called “good books for bad children.” She is often referred to as the most important editor of children’s books for the last century. The list of writers she worked with is staggering: E. B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Syd Hoff, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstien, etc.

A lot of books from my childhood that weren’t directly associated with Nordstrom still seem to fit her “good books for bad children” motto. Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) is a perfect example, as are Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (1990) and Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me (1993).

And then a boy with a lightning-shaped scar appeared.

People are still figuring out what the blockbuster success of Harry Potter means. Books are getting longer (extreme example: Tuck Everlasting = 28,000 words & The Amulet of Samarkand = 122,000), but is that it?

I see a change happening across the board in children’s literature–from picture books to YA–so maybe I shouldn’t just pin it on Harry Potter. The change I see is that the material is moving further and further into empowering kids by giving them ownership of their materials.

Picture books have less words than they used to. It’s now rare to see books with a paragraph on one side, and a picture on the other. The books are getting more immersive, with fewer words, allowing the kids to get deeper into the books themselves without the need of an adult bridge.

A spread from “Blueberries for Sal”, published in 1949.

Jillian Jiggs, 1985…

yo yes

and “Yo! Yes?” from 1994.

In middle-grade novels, I see the same trend towards ownership. Whereas the narrators of Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh often reference the fact that they’re telling you a story, most narrators today are invisible. So we don’t end up with an adult-writer telling a story about a kid-character to the kid-reader. The kid-reader just directly watches the kid-character.

I feel like the existence and surge of YA fits my theory as well. Many adults are still telling teens that they should be skipping to adult books. A lot of teens are choosing books where they feel represented instead.

I should note that I’m talking about trends, not laws. Green Eggs and Ham debuted in 1960, deliberately using only 50 simple words. Lemony Snicket is one of the cattiest, most intrusive narrators I’ve ever met. However, I think the trend is real.

An implication of this move towards children’s ownership of their books isn’t just format (narration) and subject matter (ex. Captain Underpants). I think it favours writers who write for throngs of kids, rather than the tortured artist’s inner child.

That’s a good thing, right?

Depends. What is art for?

According to David Foster Wallace, art should “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” Which is often what good books for bad kids did. I remember reading some of those books in elementary school. They challenged me to become more empathic.

I still regularly here children’s writers talk about writing for their inner children, and I think I count myself as one of them. I often feel like I’m trying to write books that I wish I had read when I was younger. To push, nurture, and entertain young-Bill.

Like gardening and architecture, the categories I’m talking about here are not mutually exclusive. In A Sense of Wonder, Paterson talks about children who connect and respond strongly to her characters. And there are several moments in Riordan’s books that could inspire reflection.

I’ve been working with young people since 2004. I have lots of practice at making kids laugh and keeping their attention. After I type out a draft, I visualize it through their eyes. And if I feel like a paragraph is boring, or irrelevant, it’s going to be crossed out.

Because at the end of the day, kids’ books are for kids.

My next post will be the first entry in my “Five Great Things” category. First up, great children’s book concepts!

Outlining for my Inner Child: Part 1

image from flickr user Sarah (Rosenau) Korf

In a conversation with the Sydney Morning Herald, George R. R. Martin describes two kinds of writers:

“I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener. In my Hollywood years when everything does work on outlines, I had to put on my architect’s clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.

That being said, I do know where I’m going. I do have the broad outlines of the story worked out in my head, but that’s not to say I know all the small details and every twist and turn in the road that will get me there.”

My brain likes logic. It likes categories and lists. Until I got to calculus, I was actually better at math and physics than language arts. My current writing ability is highly influenced by knowledge of grammar. Therefore, outlines and architecture.

To be honest, I think most of my favourite writers are gardeners though. Not all, but most, especially in fiction for adults. Neil Gaiman compares writing to driving on a foggy road where he can’t see very far ahead. George Saunders says it’s useless to think about writing when he’s not actually sitting with his work, because everything is determined by what the words on the page are, what they imply and require.

I often say my favourite writer is Kurt Vonnegut. Although he talks about outlines in the introduction/first chapter of Slaughterhouse 5, his architecture doesn’t sound very solid.

“… I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper.

I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the vertical lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.”

That sounds beautiful, but not very solid…

As such, it was a great relief when I heard Kenneth Oppel talk at the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable last year. His presentation showed the process he uses to write a novel. After spending time in a “dream phase”, imagining the world and drawing diagrams, the second step he takes is to create a beat sheet of every single thing that will happen in the novel.

Oppel’s diagram of the ship from Airborn

After that, I started to see evidence of architecture more often. Screenwriting requires heavy outlines because the process is so long, and there are so many people involved. Chris Sanders talks about the importance of getting the structure for How to Train Your Dragon right on the first try, because they wouldn’t have time or money to fix it later.

At the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, Arthur Slade talked about how important his planning phase was. Then I came across/remembered a few outlines I’d seen online. And from authors I really liked.

This is one of Scott Westerfeld’s meta-documents for Behemoth, called a “Pace Chart”. He has other documents that show the timeline for his events, so he can figure out whether it’s Wednesday or Saturday. The red/blue pins indicate POV characters. Notice the importance that Westerfeld places on building tension before the action sequence. (The program he’s using is Scrivener.)

This is J. K. Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix. The only part I can read are the months along the left side. Personally, I love the smudges. It’s a great visualization of how many different plots she’s kicking along at once. I’ve spent the most time studying the Philosopher’s Stone, and the rhythm of set-ups is relentless.

Joseph Heller’s outline for Catch-22. Another grid chart, like Rowling. Maybe I should try this format.

Brandon Sanderson identifies strengths and weaknesses to each approach. He says gardening leads to realistic characters and smaller more interesting details. I think it also works better for yearning and motivation. Architects are better at plotting–ensuring that you have a dark moment at the end of Act 2, a few big action scenes, and a show-stopper at the climax. If the pages fly by and you’re impressed by the ending, there’s likely been a plan.

When you start to think this way, you can get a feel for how a book was probably written. I don’t have evidence, but I would bet that the Hunger Games and the Grapes of Wrath were both heavily planned. The plots are evenly divided into thirds, and the finales are airtight. The push and pull of emotions, shooting from positive to negative, also points at an outlined plot. Furthermore, Collins has a background in television.

If something is madcap inventive in a certain way, like Half World by Hiromi Goto or the The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, I suspect gardening. I also see it in introspective characters, or when conventional plot pacing stretches to fit the character’s needs (we can’t have that moment yet, she’s not ready for it!) as in Plain Kate by Erin Bow or Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

I expected Susin Nielsen to be an architect, based on her experience with TV, but when I heard her describe her process, it sounded more like Martin’s. She said she knew things that were going to happen, but she mostly followed her characters. Which shows. They are highly relatable, and we get to know them instead of speeding off to the next plot point. When her climaxes do come, they’re compressed and intense.

As Martin said, the binary is an oversimplification. In reality, all writers do a bit of both: gardening and architecture. The desire to even divide this way feels like a product of my logic-brain getting loose. If I didn’t actually see patterns I’d stop thinking this way though. For me, it’s a helpful framework. Even if only to know there’s more than one way to write a novel, and that my way is valid.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss another fundamental division I see among people who write for children. There’s a hint in the title of this post. 😉