Tim Byrd, whose book Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom will be published next month, and I were getting acquainted over at his blog yesterday. He started me thinking about the possibility of adult protagonists in children's literature, and you guys know that anything I think about has a good chance of ending up here.
Tim says that he's "not a huge believer in the necessity of making kids the sole, or even primary, viewpoint characters in fiction aimed at them." He talks about all the books "focusing on adults" that he read as a child. He adds that "in choosing stories to read, the age of the characters was never a consideration."
I think kids probably aren't aware of seeking out characters of a certain age. And they don't have to. They have access to all the kinds of books Tim talks about reading when he was a kid--"Tarzan, Conan, Sherlock Holmes, Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers"--as well as the spy stories and mysteries I latched onto while still pretty young. They can find pretty much whatever they want. I don't think there's any compelling need to place adults in primary roles in what we think of as children's literature.
Tim describes his editor as leaning toward wanting to see a child in a protagonist's role in children's books. When I started publishing children's fiction, I had an editor who definitely believed that. She made a believer of me. In large part, this is probably because I like definition. I like to try to focus and remain on task. If children's books aren't about children, then what the heck are they? How am I supposed to go about doing what I do? But in part I'm with my editor about the need for a central child character in children's books because I believe all of us read to make connections with others, to feel a sense of community with someone like ourselves or someone we would like to be. Children can read adult books for those times when they want to connect with someone like Sherlock Holmes, someone they want to be like. Children's books ought to provide them with with opportunities to connect with someone more like the selves they are now.
Adult main characters can work in children's books. But I think that happens when the adult characters are outsiders of some type. Think Skullduggery Pleasant, for instance, who, as a skeleton, can't be said to fit into society very easily. Or at all. Our social order is run by adults, making children outsiders. Outsider child readers can connect with outsider adult characters.
Diana Wynne Joneshas said about the protagonists in children's books, "It follows that they usually have to be fairly strong, dynamic characters, and some of them have to be people that children will follow willingly into the action. For this reason, it was thought at one time that the main characters always had to be children. This turns out not to be true...as long as someone in the story is likeable, understandable or a loveable rogue and so on."
By likeable and understandable, I assume she means likeable and understandable to a child reader. And what is a "loveable rogue" but an outsider? Think of Howl in Wynne Jones own Howl's Moving Castle. Perhaps these rogues also work best in a buddy story, one in which the buddy is a child or at least a younger character. Think, again, Skullduggery Pleasant and Howl's Moving Castle.
As a result of reading Tim's post, I've decided to move Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus to the top of my To Be Read pile. I'm hoping he'll discuss this subject. Have we always felt that children should be center stage in children's books? Or back in the day when books for children were more instructive were they filled with adult characters for them to model themselves upon?