Readers want to know early on the age of a main character in a children’s book. In a (non-illustrated) book, we don’t have a visual before us. So character age is one of the most important things we need to know up front.
How and when to convey that bit of information?
I took a look at character age and how this boring but necessary bit of information is introduced in various children’s books I happen to be reading lately.
EXAMPLE ONE: JUST PUT IT OUT THERE, EARLY AS POSSIBLE
A great example of that is a Richard Peck novel called Unfinished Portrait of Jessica. (This isn’t one of Peck’s more enduring novels — it’s out of print, in fact.) Here’s the opening paragraph:
Not even fourteen yet. I was still days away from fourteen, and they were plodding, icebound days. A hard frost patterned every pane of the window. In the December blackness outside, ice groaned on the lake. Farther south, where Lake Shore Drive curves, Michigan Avenue had begun to glitter with the white pinpoint lights of Christmas.
Although Richard Peck puts the age information out there with no mucking around, he nevertheless has done it seamlessly. It feels seamless because we hardly even notice it. The age of the character merges into the setting — another example of information that many readers need early. By the time we’ve finished reading that paragraph we’re thinking about the beautiful description of the setting, but we’ve almost subconsciously taken in the age of the character as well. This paragraph doubles as an example of ‘hiding it’, in the same way ‘said’ is hidden as a dialogue tag. Readers don’t even notice it, but need it there for clarity.
The Littlest Bigfoot by Jennifer Weiner is a much newer children’s novel and opens like this:
On a clear and sunny morning in September, a twelve-year-old girl named Alice Mayfair stood in the sunshine on the corner of Eight-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City and tried to disappear.
So much packed into one opening sentence:
- Time of year
- Age of main character
- Her full name
- Exact GPS location
- A hint about her psychology
EXAMPLE TWO: MENTION GRADE AT SCHOOL BUT NOT EXACT AGE
If the reader knows your character’s year at school, you know their approximate age. Writers still need to mention their character’s grade level of course, so don’t exactly skirt the problem. However, grade level is slightly easier to slip in naturally.
We never learn the age of Greg Heffley, but we do know he’s in the sixth grade. Importantly, Greg is a Bart Simpson character — year after year he’s still in the sixth grade. This means Greg can never celebrate his birthday on the page, because then readers might start thinking, hey, if Greg can have birthdays, why isn’t he getting any older? For the exact same reason, Jeff Kinney skirts around Greg’s precise age. (If you’re super interested in this kind of thing, you can do some calculations and learn that Greg’s birthday is June 18th.)
I think that Greg will be an unhappy adult. Luckily, he’ll never get there, because he’s going to be stuck in middle school forever.
What’s more important than Greg’s exact age: His age in relation to other characters. That’s what we really want to know, right? Greg is older than Rowley, which is important because he’s closer to puberty, and all the attitudes that go along with. Rowley is clearly a more childlike character. It is also significant that Greg is the middle child, at a disadvantage when it comes to his bully big brother, but also lacking the ‘cute’ advantage of his baby brother.
The first book in The Ella Diaries series, Double Dare You, opens with two pages about why the main character is writing a diary. Page three tells us Ella’s age via her grade. At the same time, the author tells us what time of year this is. Interestingly, this book is not tied to the seasons. This is possibly so that it will appeal to a Northern Hemisphere market, who aren’t as used to a school year which starts at the end of January.
I’m going into Grade 5 this year (starting tomorrow) and Dad says Grade 5 was the best year of his life.
— Meredith Costain, Double Dare You
EXAMPLE FIVE: LET THE PICTURES TELL YOU
Pretty much all picture books fall into this category. Picture books rarely mention details such as age because the reader can tell from the illustration. But this can also apply to illustrated MG.
EXAMPLE FOUR: HINT AT IT
Exact age is super important to the middle grade audience but less so by the time readers get to high school.
The Chocolate War opens with a description of a male character playing rugby and getting concussed, but for the first few pages it could be an older, professional player for all we know. The Goob’s youth is explained on the second page of story:
‘How tall are you, Renault?’
‘Five nine,’ he gasped, still fighting for breath.
‘One forty-five,’ he said, looking the coach straight in the eye.
‘Soaking wet, I’ll bet,’ the coach said sourly.
We now have the image of a gangly teenager. Age isn’t all that important in The Chocolate War, which is all about dominance and hierarchy. Is comes secondary to that.
EXAMPLE FIVE: SAY IT OUTRIGHT BUT SPURRED BY SOMETHING ELSE
The main character of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is twelve years old. We don’t learn her name until chapter three. We learn her age in the context of Miranda reading A Wrinkle In Time. Someone asks the first person narrator main character what the book is about:
I thought for a second. “It’s about a girl named Meg–her dad is missing, and she goes on this trip to another planet to save him.”
“And? Does she have a boyfriend?”
“Sort of,” I said. “But that’s not really the point.”
“How old is she?”
“Twelve.” The truth is that my book doesn’t say how old Meg is, but I am twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven.
The first Ice Wolves book by Amy Kaufman waits until page 18 before saying this:
Dusk was falling, and they both knew it was time to hole up for the night. It wasn’t a good idea for twelve-year-olds to be out after nightfall.
— Elementals: Ice Wolves by Amy Kaufman
But we have the feeling of twelve-year-olds long before that. And we know the main characters are twins. And the age of twelve is really common in this category of children’s book, so it’s a fair bet they’re twelve anyway.
EXAMPLE SIX: KEEP IT SECRET
In a long-running series like Babymouse, the characters never age. Yet book 18 in the series is called Happy Birthday Babymouse — the perfect birthday gift for Babymouse enthusiasts and no doubt an excellent marketing decision. (This book also includes reference to their Squish series — obviously marketed at the boy audience, of which a proportion have been trained to avoid anything with pink on it. I have always suspected this, and here I have it confirmed, as the Squish character reads Babymouse’s birthday invitation and says “I wonder if I have to wear pink.” An arrow points to Squish, coloured pink to fit in with the Babymouse graphic design and the arrow label says ‘It’s much greener than Babymouse!’)
I imagine Jennifer and Matthew Holm were faced with a minor storytelling problem: How to write a birthday book in which we never know the main character’s age? Age is important to kids.
They scoot round this problem with a page that breaks the fourth wall:
Narrator: Next day. […] I’ve always wondered about something, Babymouse.
Narrator: How old are you?
Narrator: You never say in the books.
Babymouse: Books? What books?
Narrator: Maintaining the mystery, I see.