Five Great Kids’ Lit Heroes

Today’s list was the hardest one so far. It highlights just how much I still haven’t read. So for this list there’s no real order, and I’ll continue with five more in the next post. Here we go!

Children’s literature is full of curious kids who are blandly brave. They’re almost interchangeable. Rather than the focus of the story, these protagonists are nearly invisible while we are immersed in the books’ worlds. It’s not always a bad thing–often the world is quite interesting–but these characters are more spyglass than hero.

Characters are determined by the choices they make, so a hero character to me is one who makes heroic choices. My favorites are those who forward a new theme, aside from simply “doing the right thing” in situations where “the right thing” is obvious. I like characters who question their surroundings and stand up to things that are difficult. For me, Neville Longbottom ranks much higher than Harry Potter.

And sometimes, a strong enough idiosyncrasy is enough to carry a hero and make them memorable.

Winnie Foster

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

For most of the story, Winnie Foster is one of the curious, brave, precocious children we see everywhere in children’s literature. What makes her special is the choice she makes, revealed in the book’s epilogue.

The pacing of the book gives her time for reflection, and us along with her. Ultimately the book is about what kind of life is worth living, and the inevitability of change. This is a much more difficult theme than the usual ones in children’s fantasy: “Never Give Up,” “Evil Never Triumphs,” and “Accept Your Responsibilities.”

The Logan Family

The Logan Family Saga by Mildred Taylor

Yeah, I’m listing the whole family. They all work together in the fight against the real villainy of Mississippi racism in the 1930s. I could go character by character, from Little Man to Mrs. Logan to Cassie to Stacey to Mr. Logan listing off brave actions and moral choices, but then I’m just giving you a plot summary.

This is an incredible example of characters being more notable for what they try to do than for what they accomplish. In order to be heroes, the Logan family does not have to wipe out racism. They do not have to free the land from oppression. It’s more than enough to stand up where and when they can.

Furthermore, this is an important series that portrays oppression from the point of view of the oppressed. Children’s literature needs more books like these.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Not every story needs a deep theme. Fantastic Mr. Fox stands out by being hilarious. Wes Anderson managed to read a lot of pathos into Mr. Fox and his lost tail and his family, but the original story is just a great example of repetitive humour and escalation.

No matter what’s wrong–superb confidence. Keep digging! Dig until you are digging faster than bulldozers! Dig until you have made a gigantic loop to the surface!


the Moribito Series by Nahoko Uehashi


Balsa has sworn to work as a bodyguard-for-hire until she saves eight lives, in atonement for the eight people killed on her behalf when she was a child. Despite this noble work, her character is complicated by the statement that the reason she fights is that she can’t stop herself. It’s a compulsion and obsession.

The strongest insight into her as a hero comes from Chagum, the prince who she has sworn to protect. A water spirit has planted its egg in him. He can feel how desperately the egg wants to live, but he still can’t bring himself to risk his own life for it. In contrast, Balsa leaps in front of assassins and demons to save him on several occasions.

It’s become common to see female warriors as characters, but most are still wrangled into romance plots. Balsa is allowed to have other ambitions and drives.

(It should be noted that Balsa is 30 years old. A bit old for a typical children’s literature protagonist, but hey, that’s how this book is marketed.)


The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

A notable reversal where the princess goes off to save the prince. What’s more, she does it without glamor, walking down the road in a simple paper bag.

She is clever enough to trick the dragon, but who cares. Heroes are always clever when it comes to tricking dragons. Much more impressive, she is clever enough to dump the prince when he insults her paper bag. This book has one of my favourite final spreads:

“They didn’t get married after all.”

Want more? Check out the next post in the series!




Best Books of 2013 (Sort Of)

My post on heroes is delayed. Here’s what blogs are SUPPOSED to do at year-end.

Let’s be honest: I didn’t read all the books that came out in 2013 and neither did you. In fact, a lot of the books that I read this year came out a while ago.

How on earth can I put a list together? I thought about this and decided to give three different number ones.

The Best Book I Read in 2013: Published in 2013

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers & Saints is a set of two graphic novels about the Boxer Rebellion, “a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement which took place in China between 1899 and 1901.” I’m not sure I would classify this as a children’s book, but the protagonists are young, and I’ve seen this work recommended for high school.

The two books are sold separately, but you need to read both of them in order to get the full effect. You need to see how they contrast and inform each other. The first book, Boxers, is longer and more colourful. It sets up more of the history and the motivation of the boxers, who see themselves as Chinese Opera heroes. The second volume, Saints, is a bleaker more reserved look at the consequences, humanizing the people on the other side who are massacred in the first work.

Some of  Yang’s earlier works–American Born Chinese and The Eternal Smile–used outside the story twists solutions for their endings. I wouldn’t quite call them deus ex machina, but I didn’t find them satisfying. As I neared the end of the second book (Saints), I worried that something similar would happen, but Yang pulls it off something splendid. He achieves the combination of unexpected and inevitable that good endings strive for, and it has a resonance that echoes all the way back through both volumes.

More importantly for this work about war and perspective, the ending doesn’t take an easy way out.

The Best Book I Read in 2013: Published Earlier

The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

I was motivated to read this book due to the recently created Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Sunburst Award has had a young adult category since 2010, but the Monica Hughes award is the first (to my knowledge) Canadian award for children’s fantastical writing.

The novel is set on the planet of Isis, as Olwen who lives alone on the planet learns that new colonists are coming. Explaining much more of the plot gives away the revelations which make the book oddly enchanting and immersive. The planet she creates isn’t hard sci-fi realistic, but it is definitely believable. I look forward to finishing the trilogy in 2014.

Hughes stated that the main theme she wished to explore in the novel was loneliness, but explorations of otherness are so strong that it’s hard to believe that she didn’t create them consciously. She said she didn’t become aware of themes of prejudice in the novel until children pointed them out to her.

I need to read more of her work to get a better understanding, but when measuring contemporary authors against Hughes, the three things that stand out for me would be world-building, organic theme, and empathic situations.

*Sidenote: Congratulations to Rachel Hartman who won both the Monica Hughes and the Sunburst in 2013 for Seraphina! This was my runner-up for best book I read in 2013, published in 2013, even though it was actually published in 2012.

Book Published in 2013 That I Really Want To Read

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

I get distracted easily. Sometimes I find a writer I like, and then forget to read more of their books. Kate DiCamillo was one of the first children’s writers that I got into but I’ve missed out on her last two novels.

Her newest is about a superhero squirrel. It’s gotten rave reviews and appeared on almost all the other year’s best lists that I’ve looked at. Many have called it “magic realism” which I find rare in children’s literature. At least, it’s rare when that it actually achieves the kind of spell-binding enchantment that Gabriel Marcia Marquez is known for. Too often it’s ruined with nonsensical explanations of the magic, rather than just letting magic be magic.

It also combines pages of text and sections of comics. I don’t have a lot of experience with this, although it seems to be a growing trend (Wonderstruck, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, etc.) I’m hoping that the superhero comic sections borrow ideas from Captain Underpants.

To end, here’s an interview I enjoy with Kate DiCamillo where she talks about her writing process. Of particular interest (4:02), she says that even if things are going well, she doesn’t write more than two pages a day.

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.


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’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.


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.

Learning from Pixar: Ghosts

Spoilers! For almost all of Pixar’s movies! 

Traditional thought is that the first step in a story is the inciting incident: a break in the every day, something that starts the journey, the call to action.

However, many good stories have an important step before that: the ghost.

The ghost inflicts the wound.

Most often, dead parents inflict the sense of not belonging.

Ghost: a specific event in a character’s backstory that has left emotional, psychological, or moral damage. It haunts the character and drives them through the main story.

Wound: A character’s deficiencies that are causing pain to themselves and the people around them. Healed or deepened at the end of the story.

My previous post on Pixar’s simplexity was my most popular so far. Today we’ll look at the way they use ghosts to drive their films.

In the top example (Finding Nemo), we see Marlin left with Nemo after a shark attack has killed his mate and their hundreds of other eggs (ghost). This leaves him feeling scared and overprotective (wound).

The second picture (The Incredibles) shows how Mr. Incredible was forced out of the superheo line of work, by getting sued (ghost). He winds up in an office feeling alienated and needing validation (wound).

Picture three (Up) has Carl’s last moments with his wife Ellie. Her death (ghost) leaves him bitter, isolated, and rough (wound).

There are others…

Woody’s rip in Toy Story 2, Wall-E’s isolation, and Mike’s first trip to the scaring floor in Monster’s University.

but I like the first three I showed because I find them the most powerful and original. The cliché is for dead parents. Finding Nemo is a reversal: dead children. The Incredibles makes a ghost out of something organic to the film’s world, and in Up the power of Ellie’s passing is noted by everyone who sees the movie.

So how does a ghost work?

In the fiction workshops for my creative writing degree, two of the most ubiquitous comments were (1) Why does this character need to go through this story? (2) Your character is too perfect. Having a ghost addresses these concerns, as well as others.

Basically, the ghost is what has wounded the character, and the story is the healing process. Chronologically, it usually happens first, but we don’t always see it in the story, because the “story” usually starts when the healing process starts. That is, when they start the journey that is going to address their deficiencies, and probably cause their character to change. Ghosts are either flashback or prologue.

Since Finding Nemo, most of Pixar’s films have included a prologue to establish the character’s ghost and wound. But not every prologue is a ghost. Remy in Ratatouille wanted to be a chef before he lost his clan. The event is tragic, but it doesn’t really do much to haunt or influence him for the rest of the story. He has a literal ghost following him around, but Gusteau functions as a mentor.

Similarly, Merida in Brave has a prologue in which we meet Mar’du, but this isn’t the thing that drives her arc. Unless somehow this was the moment that caused the split between her and her mother, but it wasn’t. You could be like, “Yeah it was, because she got her bow,” but then you’re just being difficult.

Neither Remy or Merida seem to be psychologically running away from inner trauma. They are running toward their aspirations. Which is still interesting, but it needs the audience to share sympathy for the kinds of aspirations they have. As someone who’s really not that into eating food, I had trouble getting into Ratatouille, whereas my friend who’s worked in kitchens loves it. I share the longing for fantasy freedom though, so I like Brave more than most.

I believe this is why Cars doesn’t resonate as well with a lot of people who like Pixar’s other films. Lightning McQueen’s drive (no pun intended) is based on a dream of racing, and his redemption is based on the nostalgia of scenic Route 66. Neither of those things ignite much in me.

Ghost inflicted wounds tend to be more universal, so in my opinion they often lead to better films. The first time I encountered the terms was in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. In case I haven’t been explaining clear enough, I’ll include his introduction to the concept.

There are two kinds of ghosts in a story. The first and most common is an event from the past that still haunts the hero in the present. The ghost is an open wound that is often the source of the hero’s psychological and moral weakness. The ghost is also a device that lets you extend the hero’s organic development backward, before the start of your story. So the ghost is a major part of the story’s foundation.

You can also think of this first kind of ghost as the hero’s internal opponent. It is the great fear that is holding him back from action. Structurally, the ghost acts as a counterdesire. The hero’s desire drives him forward; his ghost holds him back. Henrik Ibsen, whose plays put great emphasis on the ghost, described this structure step as “sailing with a corpse in the cargo”.

So those are my thoughts on Pixar. You know who else creates interesting ghosts? Marvel.

Come back in two weeks. I’ll examine ghosts for some of Marvel’s superheroes.

Kinds of Kids’ Books (Part 2)

In part one, I discussed general categories and level of language. Today I’ll continue with subject matter and word counts. I also promised a great resource, which I’ll give near the bottom of this post.

Subject Matter

To help me through this, I’m going to reference three books that have helped me a lot.

You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils; Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch; and A Sense of Wonder by Katherine Paterson

When I first decided to try writing for kids, I found Tracey Dils’s book and read it quickly. Some of my friends thought I was silly for reading something with a title so on-the-nose, but You Can Write Children’s Books actually has a lot of good advice for people starting out. It clearly outlines not just category conventions (ex. word counts, pacing, etc.) but also details developmental stages. Hugely helpful!

These developmental stages are illustrated in the second book, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch. It follows Koch’s experiences teaching poetry to children in Manhattan classrooms. He talks about the kinds of writing prompts that kids responded well to. He also notes differences in theme and tone by age.

Consider the following poems:

I wish my rabbit would not lick me!

I wish that I can eat in a tree like dinner.

I wish I could eat chicken all night long!

I wish that I was a giraffe because they got a long neck!

I wish I could go to the river and eat meat!

I wish I was a monkey to eat a banana! I wish I was as bad as my brother.

Chip Wareing, Primary Grade

Ignoring the brilliant cadence–the alternating can/could, the unusual phrase “in a tree like dinner”, the pounding towards spondees at the end of most lines, the unexpected periods–try to focus on the poem’s sense of fun. It has a tail of longing at the end on “brother” but most of the poem is gleefully leaping about.

I Was

I was in a cartoon on television. I was a broom standing in a corner. I swept floors with my feet. I didn’t like sweeping floors.

I was bought from a store.

I was able to talk.

I was a moveable broom.

I was very mad because all I did was sweep.

I was finally so mad I turned right back into a tree.

I threw my trees of oranges at the people I swept floors for.

Ilona Baburka, Grade 4

A few years later, and what a change. You could say this is dependent on individuals, but Koch notes a trend and the poems included support him. The kids start out bursting with energy, begin to be more aware of others around grade three, then turn responsible and bittersweet in the later years. It’s remarkable to see the shift in the poems.

The last book above, A Sense of Wonder, is a collection of essays by Katherine Paterson. I don’t have a copy (I borrowed it from the library) so I can’t quote from it as much as I’d like, but here is one part that’s guided my own work:

I cannot, will not, withhold from my young readers the harsh realities of human hunger and suffering and loss, but neither will I neglect to plant that stubborn seed of hope that has enabled our race to outlast wars and famines and the destruction of death. If you think that this is the limitation that will keep me forever a writer for the young, perhaps it is. I don’t mind. I do what I can and do it joyfully.

In another section, she lists the terrible things that have happened in her books: sexual abuse, racist slurs, starvation, death, etc. According to Paterson, a book isn’t made a kids book by lack of dark subject matter; it’s made a kids book by the inclusion of hope.

In honesty and fairness, I was originally planning to have this section talk about the envelopes that you shouldn’t push in certain categories, but the more that I thought about it, the less committed I felt to those “rules”. I wouldn’t say you should write your first board book about teenage pregnancy, but I’m also not willing to say that a good board book about teenage pregnancy is impossible.

Those dark and complicated issues are important, and for the most part I think the sooner that people start exploring them in a safe, approachable, and grounded manner the better.

I’ll let Paterson close this section for me.

There are adults who would rather teenagers not come face to face with such agonizing truths.  But I have never been sorry that I met my shadow when I was sixteen.

Word Counts

Lately I’ve been working off the numbers posted on Literary Rambles, which run as follows:

Board Books: 0 – 100 words.

Early Picture Books: 0 – 500 words.

Picture Books: 50 – 1,000 words.  1k is pushing it.

Nonfiction Picture Books: 500 – 2,000 words.

Early Readers:  200 – 3,500 words, depending on age level.

Chapter Books: 4,000 – 10,000 words.

Hi-Lo Books: 500 – 50,000 words, varies greatly depending on age level. A large number fall between 500 – 20k words.  Some 60-90k YA books get classified as Hi-Lo, but I don’t think they were specifically written for the category.

Middle Grade: 25,000 – 45,000 words, usually around 35-40k.  Longer word counts allowed for fantasy, sci-fi, historical.  Up to 60-70k is probably safe (though there are even longer exceptions).

Young Adult: 45,000 – 70,000 words.  Longer word counts allowed for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, historical. 80-90k is safe (there are some as high as 120k, but I recommend staying below 100k, if possible).

Nonfiction MG/YA: 5,000 – 70,000 words, varies greatly (with some exceeding 100k) depending on the type of book and age level (I recommend researching similar titles to what you’re writing/proposing to find appropriate range).  Memoirs seem to fall within the same range as novels for their age group.

They have links to several other sources on the topic that are worth checking out if this is a new area for you.

But here’s the resource I’ve been hyping: AR Book Finder. It’s a search tool that will let you find the word count of almost any published novel. Cool, right?

I recommend looking up a few books in the category you’re writing in, whether it’s chapter books or literary historical romance. You might be surprised how many cluster around the same area, and then how far out in left field a favorite novel might be.

At the end of the day, the real answer on word counts is that your story should be as long as it needs to be, and not any longer. If you’re writing the kind of story that is normal for your category, it should end up fitting pretty close on its own.

Kinds of Kids’ Books (Part 1)

One of the things I wish I’d learned first, but which I’m actually still learning a lot about, is the divisions between types of kids books. At the end of today’s post, there’s a great resource you should apply to your work.

The resource I’m planning to include in part two I like even better.


Generally speaking, these are the big categories:

  • Board books: Fewer pages, thicker cardboard than picture books. Meant for younger than 5 years old.

  • Picture books: Generally 32 pages long. The words and pictures work together to tell the story.

  • Early readers (The first books children read alone. Simple sentences, large print.)

  • Chapter books (Longer stories for readers gaining confidence. Short chapters, and the books are almost always part of a series.)

  • Middle-grade (Ages 9 – 12. These books might have changed the most over time.)

  • Young-adult (Ages 13 – 18. Often considered “edgiest”. Deal with teen issues, strong focus on voice.)

So those are the categories. Got it?

No! Bad! Stop thinking in boxes!!!

The truth is that there’s a lot of overlap, and a lot of books that purposely defy category, even in the examples above. There Is A Bird On Your Head looks a lot like a picture book. The 13-year-old narrator of The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen sounds closer to middle grade than an older young adult protagonist like Katniss Everdeen.

There’s a whole category of books called high/low designed for teens who are weaker readers. They use simpler vocabulary and sentence structure, but deal with age appropriate themes. Orca Soundings makes a bunch of these, with topics such as violence, sexuality, race, etc.

Furthermore, each category has a plethora of genres inside. The usual non-fiction, mystery, fantasy, historical romance, hot issue books, but they get even wider. Here’s the list of types of books for kids aged 9 – 12 on Kids’ Books (a bookstore in Vancouver) website:

The boundaries are soft, and there’s a huge variation within each, but it’s important to know which market you’re writing for. Here are a few things to keep in mind: level of language, subject matter, and word count.

Level of Language

Consider the following excerpts: one from an early reader, one from a middle-grade novel:

I, Nate the great detective, was weeding in my garden. My dog Sludge was digging in it. Oliver came over. Oliver always comes over. Oliver is a pest.

I have just lost a weed,” he said.

“No problem,” I said. “You may have all of mine.”

“But this was my weed,” Oliver said. “Can you help me find it?”

“I, Nate the Great, am not going to look for a weed. I only take important cases.”

“This is an important weed,” Oliver said. “I bought it for a nickel at Rosamond’s ADOPT-A-WEED sale. Rosamond picks weeds that nobody wants and she finds homes for them.”

“I believe it,” I said.

-Nate the Great Stalks Stupidweed,

by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat (Grade 1.5 Reading Level.)

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.

– Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (Grade 6.5 Reading level)

To figure out the reading level, I used the chart below. It uses a combination of sentence length and word-syllable length.

This chart does not include abstraction and metaphor, although I feel those are a key part of a passage’s difficulty. My gut feeling used to be that younger readers would have more difficulty visualizing the action, so they used pictures. Following that train of thought, for a while I assumed that middle grade novels should use more concrete description, and I sometimes avoided metaphor in describing characters or fantastic locations.

I’m happy to announce this doesn’t seem to be the case. Fantasy books often give bare descriptions of their creatures, and this doesn’t seem to cause problems. For example, the troll in Artemis Fowl is never given a clear outline. He’s just horns and hooves and a general impression of size.

If the troll is difficult to visualize, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Your brain is forced to imagine SOMETHING, and the fact that it’s a murky image, unclear except for a sense of imposing stature, is just fine.

Next post will continue exploring kinds of kids’ books, looking into subject matter and word counts.

A Tip That Should Be Obvious (But Often Isn’t)

The Tip

What’s the most awesome part of your story? Do more of that.

What’s the least fun part of your story? Do less of that.

I remember the epiphany of sitting in a workshop when people told me that they wanted more of the cool part of my story. Or all that boring stuff at the beginning that I thought I needed to “set up” the cool part. They didn’t want that at all.

How freeing!

And you know what else is awesome? Usually the awesome part that you get to make longer is the fun part to write.


Do it. Go write something awesome. If you want, here’s a prompt…

Today, a dragon has followed Eric home from school. He wants to keep it, but his parents might not let him.

The most boring way to continue the story would be to have Eric tell his parents about the dragon and to then try and convince them about how he’s responsible blah blah blah.

Especially for picture books, stories are told through action. What’s something awesome he could do with the dragon to SHOW that he’s responsible? Or maybe he wants to try and hide the three-hundred-foot-long-lizard under his porch.

Whatever he tries to do, zoom in, and make that moment longer. Maybe come up with six or seven ideas, choose the coolest one, and then go crazy with it. The farther you go, the cooler it might become. You can always reel it in afterwards.

Art from Vladimir Zuñiga of




What Good Ideas Entail

“Just Full of Ideas” taken from Cayusa on flickr and shared under Creative Commons.

How do you turn an idea into a story?

Regardless of what kind of idea you started from (What if, Image, or Theme) eventually the heart of your story is going to be the characters. But if we just start running from there, we might not hit maximum potential. What I really want to do (because I should stop being presumptive and saying “we”) is consider the way that character, plot, and theme interact. Once I’ve got a good intersection, then I’ll return to the character.

ideas worth following

I don’t have time to write the story for every idea I have. So which ones do I want to put time into? Consider the books in my post on Five Great Concepts.

The concept for each implies the entire story. Rabbits lead to a conflict with human expansion, which leads to an adventure to find a new living space, which leads to themes of courage, mortality, and home. The Magic School Bus entails a classroom of kids, a kooky teacher, adventures in science, and the themes of learning. It’s all there.

High Concept: An idea for a story that can be stated in one or two sentences.

All of the books above qualify. In contrast would be books where characters wander and change slowly. You can still summarize them in one sentence, but you don’t get a sense of why they’re captivating without actually reading the pages. Examples might be Judy Moody by Megan Mcdonald, The Whole Truth by Kit Pearson, or Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. These are great books, but they’re driven by the characters’ voices more than by a one-sentence elevator pitch.

Screenwriter Terry Russio (co-writer of Aladdin, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc) has a great column on high concepts, or the strange attractor. He gives the example…

A man wrongly convicted of murder runs his investigation from the confines of his jail cell.
Okay, this is mildly intriguing. You could use this ‘high concept’ to write a screenplay. It might turn out to be the springboard for a good movie — but a lot depends on the execution, all the way down the line. But even granting that a film did eventually get made, and made well, it still could be a tough sell to an audience.
So from a studio, or ‘development’ perspective, then, this ‘high concept’ is not likely to generate a lot of excitement… or entre into the industry for the beginning screenwriter.
An idea that’s marginally better (in a purely commercial, make-a-
sale-to-Hollywood sense) is:
A man wrongly convicted of murder learns to astral-project himself out of his jail cell; he must locate the real killer in order to clear his name.

That’s an idea that might be easier to market, but is it really worth pursuing? What kinds of conflicts do you see coming up? What kinds of characters does it suggest to you? Do you think that the idea of astral projection is inherently tied to a theme that you are interested in examining?

Chances are (unless your favorite movie is Sharknado), no.

You don’t just want something interesting that implies a bunch of stuff. You want something interesting that implies a bunch of interesting stuff. This is the reason why I think The Graveyard Book was such a great idea.

Sorry, I started using you there for a bit. Let me rephrase: I want to find stories that give me new ways into discussing the themes and ideas that I’m interested in.

how to follow

A lot of the time while we’re chasing an idea, we get distracted by other ideas. Writing a novel or movie takes closer to a hundred ideas than one, and it’s a challenge to make sure all of those ideas actually work together, especially once you’ve been working on something for a long time. When Chris Sanders and Dean DuBlois took over direction of How to Train Your Dragon, one of the first things they did was change the dragon’s model.

Do you remember that tiny little dragon? That was originally Hiccup’s friend. In the books, his friend is a small dragon.

Why the change?

Chris Sanders says that if the movie is about turning an enemy into a friend, then it should be the biggest enemy possible. Which makes sense. It follows the old rule to give your characters their opposites, and their biggest challenges possible.

However, the Hiccup from the book series could never manage the larger dragon. He is the runt of the vikings, and it takes him twelve books to grow up, not ninety minutes. The runt dragon is a good match for him, and the books are about both of them growing together.

In the movies, the dragon’s character arc is far less important.

The Emperor’s New Groove is another movie that had a huge change in the protagonist’s foil. Pacha changed from this mirror image of Kuzko, voiced by Owen Wilson to a strong-backed farmer voiced by John Goodman.

Sting was hired to do the songs for New Groove, and his wife made a documentary of the process called Sweatbox. The original planned film for New Goove was much larger in scope, called Empire of the Sun, and had multiple side plots unrelated to the film’s central question:

Can an ordinary man teach a king how to rule?

Eventually, most of the extras got stripped away. Except for the part where Kuzko gets changed into a llama. Because llamas rock.

Which maybe begs the next question…

what side plots flow from an idea?

This isn’t something I’d thought about until I started reading books on screenplay. They say that the side plot should show another way of tackling the story’s theme. It should be a kind of mirror.

I used to think it was a chance to explore a completely different theme. Sometimes I still think it can be useful that way.

The person who breaks this down most fully and clearly is Dara Marks in her book Inside Story. These are her breakdowns for Romancing the Stone and Lethal Weapon.

(I apologize in advance for badly aligned formatting. C’est la vie.)






Love is an adventure

|                                             |

PLOT (“A”)                             SUBPLOT (“B” & “C”)

(external thematic goal)           (internal thematic goal)

Trust the adventure                    Follow your heart

|                                                      |

OBSTACLE                       FATAL FLAW

Fear the adventure                         Hide from your heart

CONTEXT                                CHARACTER TRAITS

Dangerous                                             Isolated

Scary                                            Lonely

Unpredictable                                   Idealizes Love



Life and death



Choose life

|                                             |

PLOT (“A”)                             SUBPLOT (“B” & “C”)

(external thematic goal)           (internal thematic goal)

Value life                                  To connect with others

|                                                      |

OBSTACLE                                  FATAL FLAW

Devalue life                         Disconnected from others (Riggs)

                                                   Too attached to others (Murtaugh)

CONTEXT                                CHARACTER TRAITS

Murder                                    RIGGS         MURTAUGH 

Corruption                              Lonely       Overly attached

Desperation                       Reckless           Controlling

Savagery                                 Suicidal          Accident-prone

She not only suggest side plots, she also suggests what character traits, obstacles, and personal flaws are necessitated by chosen themes.

I’ve never tried to start a story by doing a chart this comprehensive, but when my stories feel like something is “off” I’ve been able to repair it by taking some of Marks’s ideas into consideration.

Thinking about too much of this drives me crazy. And I want my stories to feel organic.

Don’t you?

a final note on following quirks and being organic

Writing a good story isn’t always about hitting your theme, or hitting the exact logical monomythic step. Sometimes it’s just about writing something cool.

See: Llamas.

One of my favorite examples of this in children’s literature is Scaredy Squirrel. It’s a simple concept, but the reason it works so well is that Mélanie Watt can hit it from about a million angles. Hilarity overload.

So Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I’m about to do something very foolish. Before I tackle the question of where ideas come from, I’m going to provide a funny, insightful, seemingly-off-the-cuff video of the master Neil Gaiman saying that the question has no answer.

Then afterwards, I’m going to try to answer anyway. I’ll give you three ways to generate ideas, and one special tip.

Method 1: What If?

At 2:40, Gaiman describes the moment of inspiration as “it’s that moment where you’re sitting, thinking, what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?”

We can actually break down what he’s just said, along with the moment before it. He started with something that’s well established, and then took it in a new direction. “What if?” 

You can start from lore and clichés as knowledge, or something about our world. This question is most often used in science fiction, but it can work for any genre.

We’ve heard about fountains of immortality. What if there was one on your property, and a family came back to use it again? (Tuck Everlasting.) We know about faerie godmother gifts. What if a faerie godmother’s gift was obedience? (Ella Enchanted.) Siblings are often difficult. What if a boy’s parents adopted a chimp and tried to teach it sign language? (Half-Brother.) Cemeteries are cool and filled with ghosts. What if a boy was raised by those ghosts in the cemetery? (The Graveyard Book.)

It’s that wonderful moment of looking at something from a new angle. Then, to build a story, the obvious question: “What would happen next?”

Method 2: Images

Gaiman soon realizes his werewolf chair story has to be winter, so that you can see chair tracks in the snow. This leap is caused by visualization, an image.

In my post on simplexity, I gave another example of building stories from images: Aimee Bender’s short story “The Healer”. From the image of a girl with a hand made of fire, and another with a hand made of ice, the whole story springs. The leading question is not “What happens next?” but rather, “Who are these people? What do they care about? Why is this happening?”

After you’ve got those handled, you can get into “What happens next?” Chances are you’ll have to walk your way through all of these questions before you’re ready to start actually writing the story.

Many writers get these images in dreams, but there are many possibilities. It could be something that haunts you, or another case of “What if?” that leads to it. Or something you’ve seen in art that you would like to take in a different direction.

A few kids’ books that could have started from images: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd.

Method 3: Theme

The last way I’m going to talk about isn’t mentioned in the video, but it’s exemplified in Gaiman’s newest kids’ book: Fortunately, The Milk.

In Gaiman’s earlier book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, (Definitely a “What if?” book) he came to feel that he was teaching the world thatfathers were oblivious, newspaper-reading occasionally carrot-eating lumps of distraction.” Fortunately, The Milk is his way to make up for that, by giving us a novel that has a father on a wild adventure.

Which means, the idea for the book came from a theme he wanted to portray.

As kids’ writers, we’re often told not to do this. “Don’t build your book around a lesson,” they say, even though it worked out great for books like Animal Farm by George Orwell or The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

When kids’ books are built around a strong theme well, they often wind up as classics: Feed by M. T. Anderson; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, etc.

Apparently The Wizard of Oz is about using the gold standard vs. the silver.

Special Tip: Don’t Stop

This is the most important trick. It takes time to find an idea worth writing a whole novel about. There are writers who believe first thought equals best thought (ex. Stephen King) but not many. Most agree you’re likely to find your best ideas if you write a list of thirty things, then go back to find your favourite.

There’s a Vonnegut quote (I thought it was in A Man Without A Country, but I can’t find it tonight) where a friend tells him that he has an idea for a novel. Vonnegut responds that’s too bad, because his friend is funny. One idea is enough for a serious novel, but a funny novel takes hundreds of ideas.

I’m not sure if that comparison is accurate. What I do know is that every novel I’ve tried to write has taken hundreds of ideas. (Eep! Maybe that means I’m funny!)

That’s actually why I find answering the “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” question difficult. It’s not because I don’t know how to get ideas. It’s that the ideas in my novel aren’t just one idea. They are a bunch of different ideas that got jammed together and then had the sides filed off because they weren’t fitting together well.

If it ends up looking like one idea, then yay. I did my job.

The trickier part of this question is really about recognizing a good idea, and knowing how to turn a so-so idea into a good one. Sounds like an idea for next week!