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Sunday, October 12, 2008

What makes a good children's story?

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.


fredösphere said...

Waaaait a minute--are you implying there's someone in the world who thinks Alice in Wonderland isn't crap?

Mister Troll said...


At your service!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post. Thought-provoking. (I liked the quilt one too, but didn't have any comments to contribute other than my agreement with Mrs. Troll that you have too much free time.) I keep encouraging BG to have a regular spotlight feature on children's fantasy recommendations when he is able to wrangle the time to contribute.

I've never read the story that you're un-recommending in the OP, and neither have I read Lemony Snicket. I'm not quite the fan of Alice as you and BG are, but I think you have hit on something there with the whole hyperbole idea. Look, for example, at Louis Sachar's novels (Sideways Stories from Wayside School and so on... "zany" is possibly the most appropriate word to describe them.) Good children's novels are imaginative, wondrous and fantastic. Harry Potter? Sure. Anything by Roald Dahl? Check. The Phantom Tollbooth? Check. A Wrinkle in Time? Check. And I don't harken back to Susan Cooper or Narnia from ye olden days like you guys do, but I seem to remember it there, too.

I think other features that the good novels share include relatable child protagonists. Again, I haven't read the one described in the OP, but from your description, it is not relatable for a child to be reading literature where the child protagonist is being love-chased around by a snotty pigpen mess.

Another biggie is mean, over-the-top terrible (usually) adult characters that the children must overcome or endure. This likely includes Snape in Harry Potter, The Twits or The Witches in the Dahl-universe, half the characters in the Phantom Tollbooth, and so on. There's a lot of "go kids, stick it to the man!" as a recurring theme in many such novels. Alternately, the child protagonists are able to accomplish something (important) that the adults are not. A Wrinkle in Time and The Secret Garden are examples of this type of plot.

An obvious one, too, is reasonable pacing. Things have to happen and to keep the reader's interest.

To recapitulate, then, it seems to me that a good children's fantasy needs:
1) fantastical elements, to keep the reader's interest
2) relatable protagonists
3) something to be accomplished, an obstacle to overcome
4) good pacing

When you distill it down that way, it doesn't look all that terribly different from what makes a good adult fantasy novel. Would it be reasonable to imagine that the basic elements are the same, but our tastes in "how fantastical," "an interesting goal," and what constitutes "good pacing" change as we grow and develop more mature interests?

A counter: though one apparent difference between child and adult literature may remain the amount of character development that happens throughout the course of the novel; adults seem more interested in seeing their characters mature and grow, while I'm not sure this tends to happen to the same extent in children's literature. Adults like to see realistic protagonists with human flaws and weaknesses, while children might seem to prefer super protagonists who are able to overcome.

Anyway, an interesting discussion so far. Thanks for posting about this!

Mister Troll said...

While I initially agreed with your point-by-point list, I think I could come up with examples of stories that don't fit the lists and are good childrens stories, and stories that don't. (Exceptions prove the rule, etc etc.) I'm still left puzzled.

But thanks for the comment! I would have happily put this up as a guest-post. (It's nice to get *some* contribution from your family. Ahem.)

Joel said...

Wow, Mrs. Gruff should become a regular poster! :) I agree with all of her points, and think that you are wrong wherever you contradict her. :)

The only thing I have to add (right now, anyway), is that I didn't like most of the "wacky" style books when I was young. I thought they looked stupid. Wayside School books? Yeah, dumb. Bunnicula? Lame. Where the Sidewalk Ends? Wacky poetry??? WTF is that all about?

Yeah, and I judged books by their covers all the time. I didn't have a guiding influence when it came to books, so I picked out stuff that looked good to me, and avoided stuff like the above (and other boring stuff like Where the Red Fern Grows, which I still hesitate to pick up and read, despite Mrs. Gruff's urgings). I'm sure I missed lots of fun stuff while reading D&D Choose Your Own Adventure books, books about robots or dinosaurs, Star Wars books, and the occasional quality Susan Cooper or Narnia book.

Anonymous said...

It is strange that most quote Alice in wonderland .. as this is a book that most children find boring.