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

hero6

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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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!