I've been musing lately on what makes a good children's story. There are, of course, as many styles of stories as authors, but in particular I've been thinking about the typical "zany" story.
Harry Potter, for example--although I'm not personally a big fan--is based largely around characters stumbling through really loopy situations. The Sorting Hat, Platform 9 and three-quarters, the utterly bizarre rules of Quidditch. (Think about it--would you really put your life on the line for a game in which only one member of your team gets to score beaucoup points? This game would not be fun.)
For an example that I like, how about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland? I hardly need to point out how bizarre the story is, but darn it, it's so fun!
Maybe the key to a children's story is hyperbole? It's the difference between a bowl of vanilla ice cream and a double-heaping waffle cone of rocky road ice cream with an extra scoop of mint chocolate chip, with whipped cream, hot fudge, and a cherry on top. (Mmm... actually, that sounds good!) Anyway, my point is: a "typical" children's story (if there is such a thing) paints with bold colours.
How about the The Hobbit? It does have long stretches of serious, but these are always broken by the bumbling antics of hobbits or dwarves. The dishes consumed at the introductory feast, for example, is pure hyperbole. The trolls--surely we're meant to laugh at both the trolls and the dwarves?
Let's consider the Lemony Snicket stories: An Interminable Series of Events (something like that, I think). These stories are all based around bizarre situations. Yet... Lemony Snicket just doesn't have the sparkle of a good story. And what's the difference?
I don't know.
It's not the melancholy--I would hardly object to that. It's not really the length, although certainly one does suspect the stories were split into so many volumes in order to maximize profits. The characters of the children ought to be endearing--and they just aren't.
I also deliberately picked this example, because opinions are of course so subjective. There are quite a lot of fans of Lemony Snicket out there, who would vehemently disagree with my opinion! (I'd take on Harry Potter instead, but I value my life.)
I started thinking about this issue because I recently read The Wind Singer (William Nicholson), which had all the promise of a lovely story. Two children (twins!) are exiled from the authoritarian city of Aramanth. They decide to go on a journey to rescue the key to the "wind singer", a legendary device that will purportedly bring happiness to the city. Naturally (because that's just how this works) the key to the wind singer is kept by the all-powerful Morah, some sort of evil overlord who lives off in some vague direction.
I thought for sure this was going to be a good story. Charming characters, charming background, the possibility for fun situations. And oh, oh, no, it was not.
Lessons for budding authors out there. Unless you are Victor Hugo (and you aren't), don't send your characters fleeing through the sewage of a major city. Eww! That's not fun! I don't care if they do meet friendly sewage dwellers, who eat the stuff--eww! And also, you shouldn't have any disgusting characters tag along for the ride. The, err, intellectually challenged classmate Mumpo turns out to also be a major character (surprise!). He's repulsive, generally covered in snot and drool, in love with one of the twins, and he has no redeeming qualities. Awkward. Not just for the twins, but for the readers. Is this supposed to be funny? It just made me uncomfortable.
The story is an utter flop--yet how do I say it's so different from other children's stories? How is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland genius, and The Wind Singer utter crap? At least Lewis Carroll avoided sexual harassment and potty jokes, but... there's no plot, none of the characters have redeeming qualities (not even Alice, who's an idiot! Though in fairness, she did grow a spine at the end).
And ultimately I'm still left with the question: what makes a good children's story?
I don't know.
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