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!

Balsa

the Moribito Series by Nahoko Uehashi

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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.)

Elizabeth

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!

 

 

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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!