Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Do Kids' Books Need Kid Characters?

Last spring, a few of us here at Original Content got into one of our lengthier discussions on the subject of adult characters in children's books. At that time, I said I thought adult characters could work in children's books, but I thought "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." Other examples would be Howl from Howl's Moving Castle and Horatio Lyle in The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle.

Something all these kids' books have in common, besides an outsider and even over-the-top central character, is the presence of children or at least younger people to interact with those central characters. That makes sense, right? A kids' book ought to have some kids somewhere, wouldn't you think?

However, some people at the child_lit listserv recommended a children's series to me that has no child characters at all. Sure enough, the first two of the four Montmorency books by Eleanor Updale don't have any child characters interacting with the rogue-who-becomes-a-gentleman (of sorts) main character. They are historical novels about a Victorian era criminal who uses the London sewer system to get around while breaking and entering the homes of the well-to-do. He creates a new identity for himself with his ill-gotten gains.

What makes these books kids' books is the writing style, which is very straight forward, even quite simple in places. Characters often quickly work out problems in their minds, for instance. I think an argument could be made that the first book, in which the main character develops his dual identity as both the criminal Scarper and the gentleman Montmorency, is thematically YA because we see a character in transition, as, presumably, adolescents are. I thought the first book worked pretty well as historical fiction, too--the historical setting was well done without overriding the characters and plot.

The historical detail wasn't as strong in the second book, and five years have passed since the time of the first volume in the series, so Montmorency is getting further and further from youthfulness. (The third book, which I haven't read, takes place thirteen years later.) What's more, he isn't always the center of attention. The point of view shifts among three adult male characters.

I've been told by other adult readers that kids like the Jekyll and Hyde aspect they see in these books. I've also been told by one teacher that she's used them successfully with sixth graders. They might be good for helping less sophisticated readers on the high end of middle grade start to make the transition from children's to adult books.

I can't say, though, that they've sold me on the idea that a children's book can work without child characters.

4 comments:

J. L. Bell said...

Have I mentioned William Pène du Bois's The Twenty-One Balloons as a book written for children with practically no children in it? It even won the Newbery Medal.

gail said...

Why I don't believe you have. My first thought was, What? Is it filled with balloon characters? But that does not appear to be the case.

leila said...

All of the examples in this post come from the UK, I think.

Dunno if that means anything, but it did strike me.

gail said...

I'm embarrassed to say that I missed that, Leila. Since I know nothing about children's publishing in the UK, I'm not even going to speculate about whether or not that's significant.