Monday, May 09, 2005

Channeling your inner child

More thoughts for beginning novelists.

What distinguishes a children's or YA novel from an "adult" novel?

No, I'm not getting all metaphysical here.

But the answer to this question often underpins many questions I get at beginning writers conferences, or among non-writer laypeople: Do you have to "dumb down" the vocabulary? The plots are simpler, right? You can't actually address any kind of sophisticated theme, can you? (If there was any doubt, the answer to these questions is emphatically "no.")

To me, perhaps the fundamental definition of children's literature is that it's literature – stories -- about a child or teen character. From this fundamental (and obvious) beginning, a couple things follow.

First, the child has to solve his own problem. It is for this reason that "normal" parents are conspicuous by their absence in children's literature: if the parents solved the problem, there would be no conflict and hence no story.

Second, the child character's epiphany must evolve naturally through him and his experiences in the book. Otherwise, the character does not change and grow. If the character does not change and grow, he seems less like a real person.

A corollary to this is that the epiphany usually should not be "I guess mom and/or dad were right after all." (To me, this is only slightly less annoying than "And then I woke up.") While such a theme can be done artfully, when this is the epiphany, the reader generally feels cheated because the thing mom and/or dad were right about has usually been presented on page two – if that's all that was going on in the novel, why bother reading? Note that I am not saying that mom and/or dad cannot in fact be right (at least occasionally), just that the child's recognition of their correctness should not be the focus and/or reason for the novel.

Third, and closely related, is that children's literature is about story. It is not about The Lesson. (The Sermon on the Mount has already been written and written far better than you will ever do). While there may be things -– important things -- that the reader will learn and leave with, this should not be the focus of the novel, any more than it is for "adult" literature.

Fourth, remember that the typical child reader is not an idiot – he is not less smart than your average adult reader, he is merely inexperienced. And sometimes, that lack of experience can drive the conflict.

How to do all this? Easy. Channel your inner child. Do not channel your child (or more precisely, how you think or would like your child to behave under these circumstances. You're probably wrong, anyway.).

Your. Inner. Child.

Think of all those things you did and never told your parents about.

Think of all those things you did and don't want your kids to find out about.

That's your inner child.

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