How Children Deal With The Dangerous and Taboo In Fiction

Stories in the 1960s and 1970s of the stories children themselves tell at two and three found a relationship between how ‘socially acceptable’ the actions in them were, and how much they took place in the recognisable everyday world of the child’s own experience. If they included taboo behaviour like hitting a parent or wetting yourself, or major reversals of emotional security, like having a parent die or being abandoned by parents, they were less likely to have a realistic setting (69 percent versus 94 per cent), less likely to feature the teller as a character (13 per cent versus 39 per cent), and much less likely to be told in the present tense (19 per cent versus 56  per cent.) Dangerous things were moved further away in place and in time, and were not allowed to happen even to a proxy with the same name as the child. Children a year or two older no longer varied the present tense and past tense, because they consistently told all stories in the past tense; but they used settings in the same way, moving the troubling material outward into fantasy, into the zones where a story event reflected a real event less directly… To castles pirate ships, space; to the forest. There, the terrible things you might do, and the terrible things that might happen to you — not always easy to separate — can be explored without them jostling the images you most want to guard, the precious representations of your essential security.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford

Developing Characters In Stories

Goodreads to Anne Tyler: You are noted for your skill in writing character-driven novels. Do you consider yourself a student of human behavior? When working on character, do you turn to people watching or daydreaming—looking outward or inward for inspiration?

Anne Tyler: I figure we’re almost all students of human behavior. That’s how we get along in the world—by trying to make sense of the people we have to deal with.

When I’m working on character, I search my memory for telltale traits or gestures that I may have noticed in some random passerby. For instance, the other day I met a delightfully scatterbrained woman who was wearing a plastic bracelet the size of a giant bagel. When she tried to write a note, her bracelet was so thick that her fingers couldn’t reach the pad of paper she was resting her wrist on. I loved that; I thought it said reams about her.

Goodreads

Here’s what Robert McKee has to say about characterisation in stories:

  • Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.
  • Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterization’ (age, looks, IQ, job etc.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask).
  • True character can only be expressed through choice in a dilemma. How a character chooses to act under pressure will reveal the most interesting things.
  • Make sure you understand your character’s desires.
  • Don’t reduce characters to case studies. ‘Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind.’
  • What other characters say about your character is more revealing than what main characters say about themselves.
  • To create 3D characters, what you do is give them complexity by contradiction. The trick is to make the contradictions of their character consistent.
  • The protagonist has to be the most complex character in the story.

Catherine Tate was asked once, ‘Where do you get your characters?’ She told the journalist that there was a shop on such-and-such-a-street.

As Dean Norris said of his character Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad: “I knew all about my character before I’d read a thing.”

From an acquisitions editor:

Here is a problem I find in my own writing and one I see in a lot of submissions:
 
Characters so focused on their own agendas that they don’t react like normal human beings to what is going on around them.
Cardboard Characters from Novel Rocket

PSYCHOMETRIC PROFILING

  1. Making use of Myers-Briggs Personality Types;
  2. How to Use Psychometric Testing to Create Believable Characters from Writer Unboxed.

Other Useful Links

4. Creating Authenticity in Fiction – Where do authors draw the line? a thought-provoking article from Carly Watters.
5. Why Your Novel Characters Need Real Flaws at Rachelle Gardner’s blog
7. What Is Character? Books which debunk the myth of fixed personality from Brainpickings
8. Under Development: Ways to Create Characters, from The Other Side Of The Story
9. Take Your Characters To Therapy from Writer Unboxed
12. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT TEMPLATE FOR HEROES (based on Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey)

Text Highlighting In Storybook Apps

…the vast majority of picturebooks are created for children. If we wish to be clearer about the nature of the picturebook should we attend to what children make of them or will our own close reading of individual texts be sufficient? And how relevant is it to our attempts to understand picturebooks that they are often used for teaching children to read?

– from the introduction to Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text by David Lewis

As children we relate to our picture books in a holistic fashion, merging sensations of the eye and the ear (for first we are read to), which marries the image and the sound of the words, and later, as we learn to read, the look of the words.

How Picturebooks Work, by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott

It’s not surprising that research on a new medium happens only after the new medium comes into existence and gains a foothold in culture. Since interactive storybook apps are so new, there is still relatively little research that has been done, and when making development decisions, developers are instead reliant upon our own commonsense, and inevitably, our own experience of literature and reading.

One of the assumptions to have arisen about the nature of ‘good’ storybook apps is that they include word or phrase highlighting synchronous with narration. The assumption: that word highlighting is beneficial for emergent readers.

At this point, the beneficial nature of text highlighting is an assumption. It may be of benefit. It may not be. And it is also possible that word highlighting actually does more harm than good to an emergent reader.

Why this assumption in the first place? I think word highlighting is often considered the digital equivalent to pointing at words with a finger, and many are under the impression (rightly or wrongly) that when a caring adult co-reader points to words as they read, that the child will pick up reading — as part of a much wider program to teach reading skills, of course.

So before focusing on the topic of word highlighting, I would first like to look a little harder at the finger-pointing assumption.

From an article in the Telegraph titled ‘Pointing to words helps children read in later years‘:

Researchers claim this is the first time a study has shown a link between referencing during reading and literary achievement in later life.

So, if there have been many good studies on the effect of pointing to words on emergent readers, they haven’t been widely published.

Let’s go with that and trust our parental instincts: that occasionally pointing to words in books, and drawing children’s attention to various technical aspects of reading does improve literacy. I’m not going to argue with that because I intuit this is the case.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, because there seem to be many app developers who intuit that pointing to words by a trained or careful adult can be emulated electronically in a storybook app.

This, I’m not so confident about. Pointing to words may be really quite different from animating individual words in digital stories:

  1. When pointing, the finger does not obscure the actual word. Instead, effective pointers would  surely place their fingers BELOW the word in question, not over it.
  2. Also when pointing, the fingers are not making those jerky movements reminiscent of colours flashing on a screen. The hand glides across the page unobtrusively. Emergent readers may well be less distracted by a hand than by digital animation of words.
  3. Fluent readers do not read by looking at one word at a time. We take in three words at once. While it’s clear that early readers need to learn words one by one, when it comes to training the eyes to move across the page, is it really that helpful to highlight words individually, especially when the narrator is reading fluently themselves? I wonder about what we are modelling when app developers choose to individually highlight words.
  4. It’s possible that some ways of highlighting words are better than others. We need more research into this. It’s not enough to simply assume that ‘apps with word highlighting are good’ while ‘apps without word highlighting are lacking’.
Here are some various ways of word highlighting that you’ll see in some popular storybook apps right now.

1. JUMPING WORDS

Sir Charly Stinkysocks and the really BIG Adventure

This is a storybook app produced by a large publishing house. The words ‘jump’ off the page as they are read. But when a word is jumping, it’s moving, and therefore not able to be read. All the emergent reader can see is where in the paragraph the narrator is up to; they can’t see the word itself. Not unless their own reading is actually out of sync with the highlighting.

Here is another app which makes use of the same technique:

Logan and the upside-down sea

*

2. FLOWING TEXT HIGHLIGHTING

Perhaps to avoid the choppiness which results from highlighting words individually, this app developer decided to make the word highlighting last slightly longer than the narration itself. The colour that appears around the words fades out slowly, so you end up with an ‘approximate’ highlighting of words. It certainly works to avoid that choppy feeling that happens when words jump.

But if the highlighting isn’t 100% accurate, leaving the reader perhaps one word behind the ballgame, might this be worse than no highlighting at all? We don’t know this yet.

3. HIGHLIGHTING OF PHRASES

Cozmo’s Day Off

I prefer this method of word highlighting, where phrases are highlighted rather than individual words. This emulates the way we read as fluent readers – not just by taking in a single word at a time, but by encouraging us to take in several. This may aid reading fluency, and fluency aids comprehension.

I suspect this book has it right. If words are to be highlighted, this is how I’d like to see it done. I like that the words themselves don’t move. Instead, a blue outline appears around the words. This doesn’t prevent the reader from actually reading them.

Temporary Conclusion:

  • I suspect that the highlighting of individual words is useful in word games in which emergent literacy skills are the target.
  • I suspect story app developers should stay away from individual word highlighting, and consumers should be wary of expecting it by default.
  • Just because something is possible with the digital format doesn’t mean it’s an improvement on non-digital versions of a story.
  • For now, app developers who use word highlighting as a selling point are making money based on something which doesn’t have good research behind it.
  • The option to turn off word highlighting should be an option, just as it’s an option to turn off narration.

I’m prepared to change my mind on this. The issue of word highlighting in storybook apps desperately needs research. But we can’t assume that highlighting equals finger pointing. It may not.

50 Best iPad Apps for Reading Disabilities from Teachers With Apps

The Strange Beast Called Imagination

Young children, of nursery school and kindergarten age, also practice emotional regulation in their make-believe, fantasy play.  They play at emotion-provoking themes, including themes that induce fear, anger, and sadness. One person who has documented this, through observations in kindergartens, is the German researcher Gisela Wegener-Spöhring. For example, she described one play scene in which two little girls pretended that they were sisters whose father and mother had died and who were abandoned alone in the woods, with bears and other wild animals around.  To deal with both their grief and fear, they held each other close and spoke intimately, and they built a cave to protect themselves and figured out what weapons they would use if a bear entered the cave.

– from Psychology Today

As neuroscientists study the idle brain, some believe they are exploring a central mystery in human psychology: where and how our concept of “self” is created, maintained, altered and renewed. After all, though our minds may wander when in this mode, they rarely wander far from ourselves, as Mrazek’s mealtime introspection makes plain.

An idle brain may be the self’s workshop from The Chicago Tribune

***

When Reality Doesn’t Match Up To My Imagination by Gretchen Rubin, who comes up with a new term: parallax feeling

The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers from Farnam Street

Children Whose Minds Wander Have Sharper Brains from The Telegraph

The Magic of Metaphor: What Children’s Minds Teach Us about the Evolution of the Imagination from Brain Pickings

8 Movies That Showcase The Imagination from Film School Rejects