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Tag: Children’s Literature

To what extent do screenwriting tips apply to writers of children’s literature?

tl;dr: Storytelling tips on writing for adults absolutely apply when crafting stories for children.

Screenwriting is some of the most dense storytelling there is, along with short stories. There’s a lot more room in an adult novel for meandering, though this varies according to genre. What about modern children’s literature, though? If you read children’s books more than 50-odd years old, you’ll notice a lot more meandering, but modern children’s books are competing with the screen, and must attract the attention of an audience who is used to the tightness of screenwriting. So more than ever, writing for children demands a tight narrative also.

There are a lot of books on storytelling out there, and many of them are written with screenwriters in mind, that is, unless you want to get into the real academic stuff, usually with something like ‘narratology’ in the title.

I’ve read a number of screenwriting books although I have no plans to write a screenplay, and most of them went in one ear and out the other — they were of no actual use when it came down to crafting a story. The three-act theories to me feel intuitively wrong. Advice to make something big happen smack-bang in the middle of the story feels wrong also, because what has the page number got to do with anything?

One day I was looking for a certain book in the library and came across Anatomy Of Story by John Truby, which was beside the book I had looked up on the computer.

(Isn’t that often the way? That’s the main problem with the digitisation of library resources — often it’s the book right next to the one you thought you wanted that you actually want, and you can only learn this by visiting a bricks and mortar library.)

Turns out, script doctor John Truby, like me but more so, is no great fan of the three-act-structure advice dished out to beginning storytellers, precisely because it is advice only applicable to beginners. The truth is, storytelling is a lot more complex than that.

Using notes from a podcast interview Truby did for Curious About Screenwriting Network (because there’s too much in his book to bulletpoint here!), and Cheryl Klein’s book specifically aimed at creators of stories for children, Second Sight, I’m going to think about children’s stories alongside films for adults. This should be pretty easy, since stories for children aren’t all that different from genre fiction and mainstream film. Cheryl Klein agrees about the adult-equalled complexity when it comes to modern children literature:

If you study the history of children’s literature, it begins with morality tales. There’s a set of German children’s stories called Struwwelpeter about little Peter, who wouldn’t cut his fingernails or his hair, and Pauline, who burnt herself up by playing with matches. But as children’s fiction has evolved through the last hudnred and fifty years or so, it’s taken on the literary and psychological complexity that adult fiction has had for centuries, away from the moral and heavy-handed, toward the complex, the nuanced, the real.

 

my two favourite writing books

my two favourite writing books

First, John Truby on…

WHY MOST WRITERS FAIL

Truby says it’s not what most people think — most people think it’s ‘who you know’ over ‘what you know’ when it comes to selling stories. That’s not true in screenwriting (and not true in children’s literature, either). It’s not all about pitching, either. Truby says that the skill of pitching is overrated. Unless you have a track record as a professional nobody will take a pitch seriously. A script with a great story is the only thing that matters. Most writers fail because they don’t know the story techniques professionals use. Most writers have been using the wrong craft all along.

Screenwriting has been dominated by the idea of ‘three-act-structure’. This way of understanding story has its merits, especially for when you’re first starting to write. But this is the only training that most writers get, and is strictly for beginners. The only chance any writer has to succeed as a storyteller worldwide is to learn the techniques that professionals use.

TEN OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TECHNIQUES WRITERS MUST KNOW

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In the judgement of children’s books…for is often the key word. Books are not just ‘good’ but ‘good for‘. Books are used for different purposes at different times — for more things than most books are. Some are ‘good’ time-fillers; others ‘good’ for acquiring literacy; others ‘good’ for expanding the imagination or ‘good’ for inculcating general (or specific) social attitudes, or ‘good’ for dealing with issues or coping with problems, or ‘good’ for reading in that ‘literary’ way which is a small part of adult culture, or ‘good’ for dealing with racism… and most books do several of these things.

– Peter Hunt

Picturebook Study: Tough Boris by Mem Fox and Kathryn Brown

Tough Boris Mem Fox

 

As fodder for stories, ocean piracy has never yet been out of fashion. Especially in stories aimed at boys, the pirates of modern picture books are often comical rather than scary; jovial rather than evil. Pirate stories bear little to no resemblance to the actual crime of piracy, which is alive and well in the world today.

What is the allure of pirates, and what kind of stories can they tell the modern reader? In this particular story, ‘pirate’ is a visual metaphor for ‘masculinity’. This is the age of the antihero; for adults see Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire etc.

Marjery Hourihan breaks down the difference between pirates and heroes in her book Deconstructing The Hero:

gentlemen–pirates

neat–dirty

sober–drunken

rational–irrational

honest–deceitful

self-controlled–violent

law-abiding–criminal

England–island

This picturebook breaks down the dichotomy between pirates and heroes.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY?

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The Implications of Preferencing The Children’s Books Of Yesteryear

The Telegraph (UK) this week published a summary of a survey in which parents were asked for their opinion on which books every child should read by the age of 16.

Can you guess what the top books were?

I’ll give you a hint: The books most highly recommended by parents were all around when we parents ourselves were children. In short, most parents think that children should be reading what we were reading when we were their age.

A WITHERING LOCAL PUBLISHING INDUSTRY

I’m not sure about the publishing industry in the UK, but I have heard from a list_serv I’m on that Australian picture book sales have taken a nose dive over the past ten years, which directly influences how many new Australian books are produced. I had noticed myself how difficult it has become to purchase even very good Australian picture books if they’re even a little bit old (especially if they missed out on top awards), but I hadn’t realised it was such a recent and such a violent downward thing, and I hadn’t realised it started 10 years ago.

What happened there, then? I’m sure a publishing expert knows far more than I do about this, though the Internet and parallel importing from Amazon owned businesses surely had something to do with it. Despite trying my best to purchase an Australian picture book this week from Not Amazon, I failed. The bookstore I sent money to told me five days later that the book that had appeared to be in stock actually wasn’t, and now I have to wait an extra week or so for the refund. Say what you will about Book Depository, but they don’t do that.

It’s easy to believe from the sheer number of picture books published each year that the children’s book market is flourishing, and in some ways it most definitely is. The big corporations are making a lot of money out of children’s books. On the other hand, take a look at the picture books on the shelves of children you know and you’ll see the same books over and over again. A lot of Australian kids have books by Nick Bland, because for several years his work has been chosen for National Simultaneous Reading Time, and there was a super-cheap (I think $5) version produced so that every child could afford a copy. Then you’ll find books that are sold in boxed sets in places like Aldi (always the classics), or Costco (the best-selling modern series). There are highly gendered books you can get as birthday presents from places like Target and Big-W — pink and glittery for girls, blue and action-packed for boys. You can also find in chain stores those books which are ‘tentpole’ books such as those by Lemony Snicket, Jon Klassen and Julia Donaldson. A lot of those make their way onto children’s bookshelves.

What else do you find there? Battered and loved books from our own childhoods. In some cases (ours no exception) old books make up the bulk.

But I can tell you as a keen and discerning buyer of books which kind of books my own daughter prefers. She most definitely prefers the new books I buy for her. And you know what else? I do too! The more modern books I read, the more outdated the classic books feel. As a culture, we are far too used to a children’s literature landscape which is predominantly white and abled and male.

There are actually very few adults seeking out the high-quality, lesser-known picture books. It doesn’t help that these tend to cost twice as much, and are often available only in hardback. It’s difficult to find the wonderfully quirky books of Australian Chris Kimmie on any home bookshelves, and if you want to complete your series of Lily Quench by Natalie Jane Prior, good luck, because these wonderful books seem to have fallen out of print.

In sum: Childhood is surprisingly short. Children move through developmental phases very quickly, and there are only so many books that can be read during each window. If your child is busy reading The Secret Seven, she is not busy reading Lily Quench, with the wonderfully ‘strong’ female hero. This is actually a zero sum game, even for the most enthusiastic readers.

DIVERSITY

Quite rightly, a lot is being said about the lack of diversity in children’s literature, and I feel like the discussion really took off — on Twitter, at least — with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

(I don’t think it’s just a ‘feeling’. See: The 2015 Youth Media Awards: A Crossover Year for Diversity, an excellent article from SLJ.)

The main problem with expecting children to read what we read, and oftentimes what our grandparents read (see Enid Blyton for a glaring example of this), is that apart from preferencing the experiences of white boys, you’ll find if you re-read critically, a lot of problematic ideas which no longer deserve a revered place on our children’s bookshelves.

Despite having loved Enid Blyton myself, and despite owning a 2-metre-wide collection of Blyton stories, I have decided not to encourage my own daughter to read these. I haven’t got around to it yet, but I intend to free up some shelf space by giving them away. Truth be told, I don’t even want to do that. If I donate them to Vinnies, someone will buy them and some other kid will be the recipient of some very dodgy ideas.

My distaste for Enid Blyton is controversial. I’m aware of that. Not really because her sexism and racism aren’t well-known, but because of the parenting style which ‘Lets Kids Be Kids’. Kids, apparently, can read as critically as adults, and by exposing them to racist, sexist stuff, you’re somehow promoting critical thinking skills.

I’m not so sure about that. I did a school project on Blyton when I was about 12 — technically old enough to be engaging in critical thinking. I found articles about the problematic racism and sexism in those books. I had noticed the sexism all by myself, but I hadn’t noticed the racism. That’s because I myself was a white kid living in a predominantly white environment. No one at all pointed out to me the racism.

OUTDATED MORAL CODES

What I realised for the first time about reading Folk of the Faraway Tree as an adult,was the way in which the young reader is asked to identify with Dick, Bessie and Fanny, and jeer with them about the ridiculous Connie in her fussy, frilly dresses. There’s some very uncomfortable femme-phobic bullying in there of the sort that was tolerated when I was at school but which is not now. My point being: A lot of what’s wrong with older books goes completely under the radar for young readers.

If we are to accept that literature is life-changing for the better, we must accept that literature can be life-changing for the worse.

WHY DO WE PREFERENCE OLDER CHILDREN’S BOOKS?

Part of it is snobbery. See another article from The Telegraph, in which Jemima Lewis bemoans the changing landscape of children’s literature:

The study notes a “marked downturn” in children’s reading habits from the age of 11. Instead of aiming higher than their age range, they swivel back on themselves, returning to the likes of Walliams and Jeff Kinney (author of the smash-hit Diary of a Wimpy Kid series). Their most sophisticated literary excursions take them no further than the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson franchises.

Back when one was allowed to make artistic value judgments, these latter books would have been described as Good Trash. Well‑crafted, entertaining and fun – but not intellectually sustaining on their own.

When I was a teenager, there wasn’t much Good Trash around. The “Young Adult” market had yet to be invented, so we skipped straight to “Adult” for our low-brow pleasures. I devoured Jilly Cooper’s early romances – Imogen, Harriet, Octavia and the rest – and even dipped into the unarguably Bad Trash of Jackie Collins.

I actually share a lot of Lewis’s concerns: The binarily-gendered book covers, the reluctance for publishers to acquire much of anything that isn’t part of a hit series. The Scholastic Book Club pamphlet my six-year-old presented me with yesterday is full of plush toys, craft-kits and branded  products: Super Heroes, movie tie-ins, TV tie-ins and the odd tent-pole Australian series, to the exclusion of all others.

To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on the so-called ‘dumbing-down’ of children’s literature, but I’m inclined to think that modern children’s literature offers modern young readers everything they’ll need to do very well in this world, thank you very much. The main reasons for reading in childhood are to:

  1. Enjoy childhood
  2. Develop decoding skills (the tech aspects of reading)
  3. Practise empathy for people who are not us and who are not like us
  4. Learn about the world

The only drawback I can see in your child reading contemporary literature to the exclusion of all else is a possible lack in number four. Reading contemporary books ‘about’ history isn’t exactly the same as reading books that were set in historical eras. But if your child is reading all the classics to the exclusion of much that is contemporary, they’re going to fall short at number three. And possibly at number one, if they’re having your old beloved classics forced upon them. Take your pick.

 

If anyone is reading all of this, I realise I’m preaching to the choir, but we really must make an effort to spend money buying the sorts of books we’d like to see more of in this world.

Setting A Story Over The Course Of A Single Day

When it comes to treatment of time in stories, there are several main options:

  1. Over a period of years
  2. Over a period of months (seasons)
  3. Over the period of a few weeks/days
  4. Over the period of a single day

John Truby, in his book The Anatomy Of Story, writes of the advantages of stories set over the course of a single day:

  1. ‘The first effect is to create simultaneous story movement while maintaining narrative drive. Instead of showing a single character over a long development…you present a number of characters acting at the same time.’
  2. ‘…the ticking of hours keeps the story line moving forward and gives the story a sense of compression.

It’s worth dividing the ‘single day storyline’ down further into

  1. 24-hour stories
  2. 12-hour stories

If you use a twenty-four-hour clock ‘you lessen the urgency and increase the sense of the circular. No matter what may have happened, we return to the beginning, with everything the same, and start all over again.’ In many ways, the

‘twenty-four-hour circular day has many of the same thematic effects as the four seasons. Not surprisingly, both techniques are often connected with comedy, which tends to be circular, emphasizes society as opposed to the individual, and ends in some kind of communion or marriage. Techniques of circular time are also associated with the myth form, which is based on circularity of space. In many classic myth stories, the hero starts at home, goes on a journey, and returns home to find what was already within him.’

If you make use of a 12-hour clock, you create a ‘funnel effect’.

‘The audience senses not only that each of the story strands will be settled at the end of the twelve hours but also that the urgency will increase as the deadline nears.’

Day Night Earth

12 HOUR CLOCKS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Anyone who has read books to children will already know which of these single-day stories is more popular in children’s books. Some common clocks in picture books:

  1. The main character wakes up in the morning, goes on an adventure, comes home to safety and sleeps happily in bed. These stories make for good, calming bedtime tales, functioning like a lullaby.
  2. Some books are about a specific time of day. Perhaps the entire focus is about going to bed, and the story is condensed to the bedtime routine. Or it might equally be about getting up and going to kindergarten.
  3. Less common is an inversion of the daytime story, in which the child is put to bed and the adventures begin. Maurice Sendak was fond of this form, evident in his book In The Night Kitchen:
  4. A young boy named Mickey sleeps in his bed when he is disturbed by noise on a lower floor. Suddenly, he begins to float, and all of his clothes disappear as he drifts into a surreal world called the “Night Kitchen”:[Mickey, a little boy] falls into a giant mixing pot that contains the batter for the “morning cake”. While Mickey is buried in the mass, three identical bakers (who closely resemble Oliver Hardy) mix the batter and prepare it for baking, unaware (or unconcerned) that there is a little boy inside. Just before the baking pan is placed into the oven, the boy emerges from the pan, protesting that he is not the batter’s milk.To make up for the baking ingredient deficiency, Mickey (now covered in batter from the neck down) constructs an airplane out of bread dough so he can fly to the mouth of a gigantic milk bottle. Upon reaching the bottle’s opening, he dives in and briefly revels in the liquid. After his covering of batter disintegrates, he pours the needed milk in a cascade down to the bakers who joyfully finish making the morning cake.

    With dawn breaking, the naked Mickey crows like a rooster and slides down the bottle to magically return to his bed. Everything is back to normal, beyond the happy memory of his experience.

Wikipedia

The advantage to setting a story over the course of a night-time is that the child will likely find the darkness and night-time spooky and mysterious, so the setting of darkness provides inevitable adventure. Also, the night-time is the perfect setting for dreamscapes and imaginings and all sorts of surreal fantasies.

 

 

Endings 12: Happy Endings

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

– Orson Welles

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA COVER

Quite a few critics have objected to the fact that Katherine Paterson’s novels do not offer young readers any hope. Paterson has refuted criticism by saying that “there is no way that we can tack [hope] on to the end of the story like pinning the tail on the donkey.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

 

[Alan Garner] states that a writer must not offer readers solutions or happy endings, but instead make use of something he calls “the method of the open hand” where readers must discover for themselves what the writer has to show. It was the publishers who requested that The Moon of Gomrath (1963) be given a “happy” ending instead of an open and disturbing one.

– from Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva

 

I do not necessarily claim that young readers need happy endings. Rather, they are conditioned to see conventional endings, which in our Western tradition happens to be a happy ending, reestablishing the characters in their power position.

– The Rhetoric of Children’s Character by Maria Nikolajeva

 

The “happy endings” of Hollywood films link them with the world of fairy tales, which are often about the achievement of perfection. Fairy tales frequently end with a statement of perfection, like “and they lived happily ever after”. Fairy tales bring the shattered family back into balance, back to completion.

Weddings are a popular way to end stories. Marriage is a new beginning, the end of an old life of being single and the beginning of a new life as part of a new unit. New beginnings are perfect and unspoiled in their ideal form.

Striking up a new relationship is another way to show a new beginning at the end of a story. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart makes the difficult Resurrection sacrifice, giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves. His reward, the Elixir he brings away from the experience, is his new alliance with Claude Rains. As he says, in one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the movies, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power. However, the very idea of carnival presupposes a temporal limitation. The child, who has been allowed to leave the security of home and experience brathe-taking adventures, is taken back, and the established order is restored. This is what we sometimes call a happy ending. As Pat Pinsent demonstrates, excessive “coincidences” in children’s fiction, which sometimes irritate mimetically minded critics, should not be considered artistic flaws since they are part of this restoration of the initial order.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

Related

8 Fairy Tales And Their Not So Happy Endings

The Tyranny Of The Happy Ending from Salon

The Problem With Endings In Subversive Tales

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 14: Social Issues In Realistic Fiction

In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

I Am The Cheese cover

David Beagley, La Trobe University, lecture available on iTunes U

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Readings

  • Only Connect by Sheila A. Egoff. In the second edition is a very good article about the ‘Problem Novel’, which was starting to become prevalent in YA fiction. [I’ve also heard ‘Issues Novel’ a lot.] Rather than an adventure in which the MC goes away on an adventure, the problem exists at home.
  • Robin Sheahan-Bright talks about this [exact work not given in the audio]
  • Maureen Nimon (retired 2004, University Of South Australia) looks at the idea of censorship — what are the boundaries that adult mediators (especially librarians) set for children? Where do they draw the line? (John McKenzie disagrees with Nimon’s position quite strongly.)
  • Robin Klein’s Came Back To Show You I Could Fly is about a young boy who moves into a new house. Something has disruped his family and he meets the next door neighbour who is a bit of a rebel/streetkid. She is teenaged, heavily tattooed, pregnant, heavily into drugs. The 12 year old boy learns to deal with what he has discovered.
  • Dear Miffy by John Marsden caused a huge furor and a lot of people changed their attitude towards Marsden. Marsden is very good at portraying female characters. All the voices in his other works are spoken by a teenage female — very direct, very good. And then this one is a diary by a boy. People were surprised at the drugs/sex content, but also the language, which people saw as ‘un-Marsden-like’.
  • Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard and its sequel Girl Underground — issues around boat people and detention centers. Two Afghan boys are desperate to play for Australia in WC soccer. But they’re in a detention camp. As with all Gleitzman’s stories, there is a wonderful surface of humour, but underneath is a tough story.

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Anamorphic Illusions

Anamorphic illusions are an example of Trompe-l’œil (trick of the eye) style of art. This kind of art is traditionally seen in murals, but can be seen in modern interior design, for example when a mirror extends along one wall to make a room seem bigger.

If you’ve watched televised Australian football anytime in the past number of years you’ll have seen anamorphic illusions. I’m talking about those advertisements spray painted onto the grass — the ones which look not painted at all, but like real-life billboards, standing up on the grass — from the perspective of the camera which gives a full view of the field.

This is actually a paddy field in Japan, but you get the idea:

rice-paddy-art-1.jpg

For some reason, Geekologie is calling it a rice ‘patty’ — maybe that’s an American thing?

These are relatively easy to make in these days of high-tech digital art and projection, but anamorphic illusions are a much older art form dating back to the 1500s.

You may have seen anamorphic chalk artists working on the footpath in tourist spots like Art Centers. Julian Beever is one such artist. Beever’s chalk masterpieces are so well done that I feel it’s almost a waste that they’re not painted. I wonder if it has ever started raining partway through his workflow, or worse, right at the very end? (You can find the answer to that on his FAQ page.) Another amazing anamorphic chalk artist is Kurt Wenner.

There are a number of books with optical illusions as their subject. Here is a list compiled at LibraryThing. Not too many of them incorporate optical illusions as part of a story — the vast majority are ‘Books Full Of Optical Illusions.’ In fact, at present there is only one fictional book about optical illusions in their database: Now You See It by Anne Capeci.

I would love to seem some great stories which happen to embed optical illusions of all kinds as part of the storyline.

David Zinn

SEE ALSO

40 Incredible Examples of Optical Illusions In Photographs from Bored Panda

Funny Optical Illusions from Visual News

Anamorphic Images Made From A Roomful Of Stuff from Visual News

Pencil Sketches That You Will Not Believe by Ramon Bruin from Odd Stuff Magazine, also shared by Twisted Sifter

Top 10 Illusions of 2012 from My Modern Met

 

 

 

 

Ignore the Critics

We need real stories, and long stories, that can be read more than once. I, by the way, don’t believe that critics change books. I believe geniuses—like Wanda Gag, Virginia Lee Burton,Robert McCloskey, Margaret Wise Brown, Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss,Chris Van Allsburg, and more recently Shaun Tan—reinvent the form. Someone who creates contemporary picture books is probably working right now on a title that’ll revitalize our understanding of and ideas about picture books.

– from  Make Way for Stories: There’s a good reason why people are passing up picture books, by Anita Silvey.

Related Links:

How Do You Know Which Rules To Break? from Wordplay

And a fantastic Interview with Maurice Sendak — The Believer

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