Friday, April 24, 2009

Pondering Adult Characters In Children's Books

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?

15 comments:

Rackstraw Press said...

I'd say it was utterly normal to have adult characters in children's books until the mid-1960s when there was a lot of discussion about why it was a bad idea.

Yet to separate children from adults is entirely artificial: only societies with very formal schooling patterns is the peer group seen to be the ideal. Elsewhere, and in the west until fairly recently, socialising with one's elders was how one *learned*.

Children's fiction would be poorer without adults:
Dickon's Mother in The Secret Garden (and the gardener and all the others).
Professory Diggory in Narnia
Mrs Pepperpot and Miss Pickerill
Long John Silver

etc etc.

Most children want to be know what lies in wait for them in the future. Without adults how do you show them?

One factor here is a shift in the ideology of children's fiction from "admire and emulate" to "identify".

There is a place for both.

Farah Mendlesohn

gail said...

Farah--I considered referring to your recent Horn Book essay in which you talk about science fiction authors prior to the 1970s writing about the same things in their kids' book that they wrote about in their books for adults, including the world of work. But I wasn't sure if you were actually talking about child protagonists there.

Rackstraw Press said...

In the book version (out this summer!) I point out how many of the juvenile novels take place in adult environments with adults around to emulate and to act as mentors. There is very little peer association compared to YA fiction.

Farah

Uma Krishnaswami said...

I think that when adult protagonists show up in children's books (Mr. Popper, for example, or Muriel Ponsonby in Dick King-Smith's The Catlady) they're often childlike in some way--eccentric or impetuous or with wild imaginations, or in some other way retaining traits that we think of as characteristic of children. So even though they may not literally be children, they're sort of child-surrogates.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm not sure Doc Wilde is the best example of the potential of adult characters in children's fiction.

The kids have three adult protectors, all of them flat figures. One is a parent, but we never see any discipline or other aspects of parenting that kids might want to get away from in their reading. And we never see or even hear about the kids' mother.

Doc Wilde doesn't ask, "Can't we have a parent along on an adventure?" as, say, Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories did. Rushdie wrote that while he was in hiding, unable to see his son, so it's a critical part of the book.

Rather, Doc Wilde asks, "Wouldn't it be neat to have Batman as your dad?" And I don't think its answer has any nuance. (The Batman comics have been exploring that question for thirty years, and still haven't arrived at an answer.)

leda said...

How about the recent Montmorency series, by Eleanor Updale? All grownup characters, published for kids (Scholastic), and very good? They break the mold---

gail said...

Rather, Doc Wilde asks, "Wouldn't it be neat to have Batman as your dad?"Since I seem to be obsessed with father books this spring, I find that a very attractive description.

gail said...

I keep hearing about those Montmorency books, but I haven't happened to stumble upon them yet. And how interesting that Scholastic publishes them, because a Scholastic imprint also published Moribito, which is also all about the grown-up.

Uma Krishnaswami said...

The Montmorency books (and every other example I can think of) are reprints of books first published in the UK. Are there any American books for the middle grades with adult protagonists (not secondary characters)?

gail said...

Uma--I've been wondering if the importance we place on child protagonists is specific to our culture.

Though even if that's the case, I have to wonder--if a children's book from another culture has an adult main character, what makes it a children's book? Reading level? Theme?

Tim Byrd said...

I don't disagree with the notion that children's fiction should cater to children, or that children shouldn't be protagonists in children's fiction.

Indeed, my book has two child protagonists. After all, I didn't sit down to write a book about Doc Wilde for my son, I sat down to write about Doc Wilde and his kids, Brian and Wren.

In doing so, I had to think about matters like responsible parenting and kids in jeopardy and whatnot, and I had to try to find a balance between sidelining the father so the kids are always preeminent in the action (a mechanic I tend to dislike, leading to things like "Dad's been kidnapped by Dr. Methane yet again, and we kids must rescue him...yet again.") or overwhelming the kids by letting their super-capable father solve all the problems.

Farah, I like your comment regarding "admire and emulate" vs. "identify." Why does it have to be an either/or? Why must there be an absolute? I tried to do both in my book, and I think that was the right choice.

What's important to me isn't that I write according to the rules, it's that I write something the reader will enjoy. As I said in my blog post, the natural shape of a story is important to me, the shape that it takes because of the characters and events, not the shape it takes because the writer tries to shape it to certain guidelines.

It's interesting that J.L. sort of gigs me on "flat" adult characters, because there was more character-building material about them in the original ms. Why is it not there now? Because my editor felt that material was extraneous to the interests of young readers. I managed to hold on to some of it -- like the short bit about how Grandma had humanized Grandpa over the years, helping him become less a stern agent of justice and more able to have fun and enjoy life -- and I think the book is better for it. But keeping things like that were very much matters of debate.

J.L. also notes "we never see any discipline or other aspects of parenting that kids might want to get away from in their reading. And we never see or even hear about the kids' mother." Ironically, there was a section of the ms in which the kids, concerned for their father's safety, go against his instructions and actually get in a conflict with Declan and Bartlett to try to go to his aid.

This culminated in a chapter in which Doc discusses the matter with the kids, pressing the necessity of them doing what he expects them to do in dangerous situations and the possibility that if he can't know that they will, he won't be able to bring them on these adventures. There was the discipline and parenting. The same chapter opened with the kids sitting quietly, thinking about their mom, and her loss (which dovetailed with their father's point about safety).

(Also, as Gail pointed out in the comments to her earlier post, the mother is mentioned, I just don't explain how she died yet; there's a lot of backstory that will be revealed at dramatically appropriate times in future books).

Again, that stuff went away (though I plan to revisit it in future tales) because my editor felt it was too sophisticated/dramatic for the young readers, and that it slowed the story's headlong pace.

I don't question the need for books with children as the sole protagonists, but I guess the question I have to ask is, is that need reason enough to not ever have a kids' book in which that's not the case, or in which the kids share the spotlight with an adult?

Similarly, is it flatly impossible to write a book that will appeal to kids and adults, and, if not, what's wrong with trying to do so?

gail said...

I believe that in days of old, adults and kids did read a lot of the same things--like Alice in Wonderland, Dickens' work, etc. And with the crossover books we've been seeing over the past ten years or so--Harry Potter, Twilight, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time--we're seeing that happening again. I don't know if those recent authors were specifically trying to appeal to both children and adults. From the things I've read, it sounds as if it just happened.

I suspect the separation of children's literature from adult literature came about as part of the movement toward specialization during the twentieth century.

I definitely don't think there's anything wrong in trying to write a book that will appeal to both age groups. However, if a book is published as children's literature and marketed as children's literature, there's also nothing wrong in considering how that audience is going to respond to it. That's why a children's book editor has to consider pacing and whether or not material is extraneous to what he believes are the interests of young readers. The book is being published as a children's book.

I don't know if we adults can ever know for certain what the interests of young readers are. We don't find out if we're right or not until after the book is published and the kids respond to it.

Elizabeth said...

Two British writers who often/always used adults in their children's book were Rosemary Sutcliff and Ronald Welch. What made them children's books is perhaps that there is always the presence of growth and change in the lead characters.

book for children said...

Are you an adult or a child? Any of the two can be. If you are the former, then you van be the character, if the latter, you can read the book. In short, combination of the two can be done.

Christmas gift said...

Well, I think this is not too bad to have an adult character in the children's book. It can be more realistic just like real life. Kid may love real things from real life.