Saturday, November 3, 2007

Do books for kids and teens need to have kids and teens as characters?

Betsy Bird's post on the "Favorite Books as a Teen Meme" crystallized my thoughts on something that's been troubling me for a while now—ever since I became a professional children's book author.

Why are all children's and teens' books today required to have children and teens as the main characters?

I'm sure the better-read kidlit types out there (i.e., everyone) will immediately be able to jump in and list dozens of such titles with no youngsters at all. But let's take a look at the books I was reading as a teen:

  • The Xanth series by Piers Anthony (yep, I got sucked into that, as well)
  • The Split Infinity series by Piers Anthony (actually, Anthony started becoming so age-inappropriate at this point, that I really shouldn't have read this series)
  • The Pern books by Anne McCaffrey
  • The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams
  • The Space Trilogy by CS Lewis
  • Everything Isaac Asimov ever wrote
See a trend? (Sci-fi/Fantasy geek.) Now, granted, I also read things like Lloyd Alexander's Prydain chronicles and CS Lewis's Narnia books, which do feature kids. And I read piles and piles of comics collections—Peanuts, Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, BC, the Wizard of Id, the Far Side—some of which featured kids (Calvin and Peanuts, yes; Bloom County...? I defy you to show me how Milo, Binkley, or Oliver Wendell Jones are really kids.)

I also read comic books, which had their share of teens: Robin from The Dark Knight Returns, Evey Hammond from V for Vendetta, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Peter Parker...

But let's look at the rest of the pop culture I consumed as a teen and preteen:

  • GI Joe: Not a kid to be seen
  • Transformers: Ditto
  • Star Wars: This was the big one; and no kids, see?
  • Indiana Jones: Which was the crappy movie? The one with the kid in it.
So, as a kid, I certainly had no particular affinity for stories that had kids in them. Give me Secret of NIMH over Feivel, and take those stupid Apple Dumpling Gang kids away!

In fact, I can barely remember reading anything that might show up on the sort of list your typical teacher/librarian would think kids would read; I had How to Eat Fried Worms, Fat Men from Space, and Bridge to Teribithia read to me by teachers and librarians, but I certainly didn't seek them out.

I think this is a major failing in today's market: The Formula (your story must have a protagonist who is a year or two older than the age group you hope to have read it; no adults as protagonists, and certainly no characters younger than the reader). I wish there was a way out of it, but I don't think there is.

10 comments:

fusenumber8 said...

All so very true. There is an odd exception to this rule, though. If the heroes are furry woodland animals then it's perfectly fine for them to be adults. Redwall and the like.

Great post!

gail said...

I think that readers identify with the characters in the books they're reading. It's a normal part of the reading process. It's one thing for a young reader to choose to identify with adult characters in adult books. The world is full of books with adult characters that they can choose from. But I find the idea of the publishing world (which is made up of the adults who control what kids read, anyway) creating books around adult characters that kids will then need to identify with in order to enjoy the book a little disturbing.

When kids choose to read adult books, they are choosing. But if we open up the definition of what is a children's book and start creating children's books around adult characters and their needs and concerns, we're limiting their choices. They don't have the option to stay in a kids' book world if adults can go anywhere. We're also suggesting that adults and adult concerns are of such value that that is what they should be reading about vs. their own kid problems.

To say nothing of the fact that I really, really need definitions. If you're going to eliminate kid and YA characters as part of the definition of a kid/YA book, then how are you going to define it?

R.J. Anderson said...

Came here from Fuse #8, and glad I did. I've just been re-reading the Prydain books to my son, and you know what? Taran is really only identifiable as a child/teen in the first two -- three at most. And even that's stretching it, considering the amount of independence and authority he exercises over the course of the series. By the time of books 4 and 5 he comes across as decidedly twentysomething -- his whole quest to find his identity and position in life is such a guy-in-his-early-twenties thing, at least in our present culture, and the leadership role he takes in the last book would be ludicrous if he weren't recognizably a man.

Having read pretty much all the same books as you did as a child and teen, plus some, I agree with you that it is not necessary for a book written for children to contain characters who are only a couple of years older than the children doing the reading. As long as those characters are going through struggles and challenges that the child reader can identify with and appreciate, that's what really matters, IMO.

Mind you, I think fantasy gives a bit more wiggle room in this area than some other genres. All of us who grew up reading fairy tales and myths are already used to identifying with adult or pseudo-adult characters.

Matt said...

Gail:

I think there is no dearth of stories for kids with kids as characters, and allowing adult protagonists into the genre would not, I think, push out all of the kid-protagonist books. So I doubt that we would limit kid readers' choices in any way.

I guess I wonder if there are not books/stories that are de facto children's books/stories, despite the fact that the protagonists are not 12 years old. And that a significant portion of young readers prefer that type of book over the type of book featuring 12-year-old kids.

As a kid, I clearly identified more with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo than I did with the characters from Little House on the Prairie or How to Eat Fried Worms. Kids love the Arthur legends, stories about Hercules, Superman, etc. etc. And, as R.J. said, maybe it's just the myths/fantasies that allow us to cut across age groups like that. (And maybe it's the fact that, personally, I am still not terribly enthralled with much realistic fiction; I'm just a fantasy/sci-fi kind of guy.) But the fact remains that many stories, starring adults, have very simplistic, non-adult themes that kids really enjoy. No one could argue that the 1980s' GI Joe cartoons/comics, despite their lack of any child characters whatsoever, were for anything but an 8-12-year-old audience. Perhaps this is a new sub-genre?

gail said...

"I think there is no dearth of stories for kids with kids as characters, and allowing adult protagonists into the genre would not, I think, push out all of the kid-protagonist books. So I doubt that we would limit kid readers' choices in any way."

That's very true. On the other hand, all the adult books out there are already available to kid readers. Since that is the case, is it necessary to bring adult protagonists into the children's field? What will be gained?

Matt said...

The rub is that most of those books with adult characters have adult themes and storylines that are either inappropriate or uninteresting to kids. What kid wants to read John Updike? But many kids (and I was in this group) prefer books that deal with themes and storylines that interest them (i.e., perhaps, like most sci-fi and fantasy, they are more socially simplistic; perhaps they deal with grand adventure and personal heroism, rather than the minutiae of interpersonal relationships), but that have adult characters. The Hobbit is a kids' book—but Bilbo Baggins is 50 years old! As is the case with many classics, this book could probably never be published today.

As a kid, my desire was not to be a kid that went on an adventure, but to be an adult who went on an adventure. As a kid, you often want to slip free of the bonds of being a kid. Harry Potter and Taran and Peter Parker overturn those things slightly, because they are empowered (or superpowered) kids—but the characters are still, ultimately, trapped in the mundane torments and strictures of childhood. Harry still is not allowed to go to the town of Hogsmeade when he wishes, be out of his dorm room, etc., because he is too young. He still has to do homework!

Adults don't face the same restrictions. Star Wars can't get started until Luke's Aunt and Uncle are killed, and he is made into an adult. It's tough to be a kid and possess true freedom of action, which is why, for escapist literature (which I guess is what I prefer), child characters will always feel limited. And as a kid, sometimes you want to cease feeling limited, if only for an hour or two.

gail said...

"It's tough to be a kid and possess true freedom of action, which is why, for escapist literature (which I guess is what I prefer), child characters will always feel limited."

I think that's why it's so difficult to do a good kid mystery. It's hard for the kid detective to get around.

So what you're interested in is stories with "young" themes, adventure storylines, and a protagonist adult enough to have true, rather than contrived, freedom of action? Okay. I can buy that.

It's probably harder to do than it sounds, though, because in my experience, it's hard to keep adult characters from taking over a kids' book, anyway, and if they're the main character they may have to be a little stunted in their emotional/social development so that they aren't always worrying about making the rent, car payments, keeping their jobs, their relationships with their aging parents and on and on.

Matt said...

"...if they're the main character they may have to be a little stunted in their emotional/social development so that they aren't always worrying about making the rent, car payments, keeping their jobs, their relationships with their aging parents and on and on."

Yes! Perhaps this is why the sorts of stories where this works usually involve a quest or war—in general, a journey away from home during which time all of those concerns of everyday life are ignored.

samriddleburger said...

I can think of one example of a kids book about adults that I loved then and now:
The Pushcart War

mkn said...

Happy to see this interesting topic. Glad you included The Hobbit..my kids also read Lord of the Rings (pre movie) at ten years old.

I loved all the Asimov I Robot series when young.....also, my parents had a complete set of children's works (like encyclopedia sets) so we could just pick whatever we felt like reading at the moment.....adult heros of the West like Lewis and Clark, fairy stories, poetry, Greek myths.

I think the furry animal adults like Ratty and Badger, Aslan, etc. serve as a bridge between adult and child states. Aslan doesn't treat the children as children, but as human begins.

What can you say about Amelia Bedilia? An adult with child like perceptions? Almost like the "foolish young man" in fairy stories.

Consider biographies and autobiographies written for kids (trust me-they have to read them for book reports)
Many have a vocabulary that's limited, but the real story of a real adult is still interesting for many kids. Some kids prefer these books.
so why not fictional adult protagonists?

So I think there's a wave of interest as far as kids go if given a vocabulary they can handle-and it's part of acknowledging that we are all in the world together, not in age groupings just because school is set up that way.