Designing Roya in Midnight Feast

I read a new picturebook to our daughter last night. The artwork was amazing. But one thing bothered me: the boy looked like a different person in every picture.

Now that I’ve illustrated a story for myself, I can totally see how this happens.

1. It’s difficult to draw people. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this, even among people who draw regularly. I think that’s why so many picture books feature animals as characters!

2. It takes months to illustrate a children’s book (even if, unlike me, you don’t dawdle about it!). Over the course of months, your child model grows up. I’ve already noticed that the reference photographs I took of our three year old look different, mainly because she’s since turned four.

But of all the things to get right in an illustrated book, it must be the child protagonists. I’ve noticed our resident preschooler looks intently at the facial expressions of the characters in storybooks. When language skills are in early development, facial clues provide most of the story.

I thought I could use myself as a model for Roya, to avoid imposing on randoms, asking them to get into my bed and whatnot, but when I first drew her, she looked about fourteen. The lazy bastard in me thought, oh well, fourteen she is, then. I can’t be bothered creating her again.

But the story doesn’t fit a fourteen year old. She has to be younger than that — I wrote the story about an eight year old. So even though I quite like this character (who looks not much like me, by the way) I had to kill her. (Along with the initial colour scheme, which was easier to let go. No one’s ever been incarcerated for killing a colour scheme, I don’t imagine.)

By the way, here’s an even earlier version of Roya. When Dan walked into my computer room he actually screamed. “Yar! What the hell is that?”

That’s when I knew I was making the story TOO scary. No one would expose their kiddies to a story with this thing as a main character, right?

Anyway, that’s what you get when you use a Blythe Doll as inspiration. (She did actually have eye-balls, but when Dan walked in I hadn’t done them yet. It’s true, without eyeballs, anyone looks freaky.)

Children’s Literature: How scary is TOO scary?

Writing scary tales for children is difficult, because it has to be interesting without being too scary. How is it done? Where’s the line? What have storytelling experts said on the subject?

I’ve always believed that children, even at a very young age, know their limits, and if a story is too frightening and overwhelms them in some way, they will either fall asleep or walk away.  If you read to your child on a regular basis, it’s easy to navigate this terrain with conversations about each story that help you instinctively calibrate what is appropriate for bedtime reading.  Reading fairy tales may expose children to the dark side, but it also introduces them to survival skills, teaching them to use their heads to outsmart predators.  Shoving the witch into the oven may be a bridge too far, but no reason to be reverent about the words on the page, especially for the younger crowd.

Maria Tatar

People say, ‘Your book keeps giving me chills,’ but I don’t know what that feeling is. Horror always makes me laugh. Normal adult things scare me, but not things from a book or a movie.

– R.L. Stine, from an interview with Village Voice

“There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.”

– R.L. Stine from an interview with mediabistro

 

What’s the difference between a monster movie and a dark fairy tale?

It’s a very, very, very thin difference. I think that horror stories come from fairy tales, in a way. They share a lot of similarities. I think the difference is tonal. You know, the fairy tale contains a lot more elements of magic and whimsy and the the horror story contains a lot more, sort of, almost existential feelings — sort of dread, and ultimately they are similar melodies, played at a very different key.

– Guillermo del Toro

Over time, supernatural and horror fiction that has been targeted to children and young adults has become darker. If we look at books from the early 20th century through to the 1950s or 60s, we see books similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in their mild handling of frightening characters and scenarios. As we move into the 1970s we start to find horror novels targeted towards young adults. Stephen King’s works Salem’s Lot and Firestarter won the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults award in 1978 and 1981 respectively, showing that children and young adults have been quite willing to read scary literature for some time. Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book are also targeted for the tween audience, and could easily be considered scarier than even these specifically labelled horror books from authors such as King and Dean Koontz. In recent years, it appears clear that more and scarier books are being targeted to the child and young adult audience, and as a result, children are reading scarier books than in the past.

Thomas Pynchon

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