Friday, April 24, 2009

Adult Protagonists in Children's Books

On Original Content, Gail Gauthier's writing about adult characters in children's books. I'm convinced that it takes certain childlike qualities to make an adult protagonist (as opposed to just an adult character) work in a children's book. Think of these characters:
They each possess traits that we think of as characteristic of children. Eccentricity. Curiosity. Large hearts. Impetuousness. Lack of real power.

Wait. Apart from Mr. Popper's Penguins, which was published in 1939, the rest are all published in the UK.

American children's books with adult protagonists, anyone?

When I was a child my father told me stories about Tenali Rama, a character in south Indian folklore who is vastly appealing to children on account of his endearing character flaws as well as his position of combination wise man and jester in the court of the 16th century king Krishna Deva Raya. His lack of real power combines with a few good flaws to create the same odd combination that seems to work for adult protagonists in children's books.

In the YA realm, the emergence of adult protagonists isn't such a huge shift, but may simply reflect a trend toward books that are literally about "young adults" rather than teenagers. Look for The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones, due out next month.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Literal, Tedious Novel Draft

A former student wrote to me saying she's bogged down in an early novel draft, can't seem to get past the middle, goes back to read what she's written and it feels clunky and awkward. The more she tries to push ahead, the weaker the writing gets. So I started thinking about drafts, and wondering if perhaps she was trying to judge hers by the same standards she'd apply to a finished work. Which doesn't seem fair somehow.
In early drafts I find that I am often literal and tedious. I usually begin with a character or two--or more. But it takes living with a story for a while before I can find my way to figuring out:

1. What the story is--plot
2. What voice to use--voice, tone
3. What slice of the story to tell--timeline
4. What viewpoint to tell it in--POV
5. How to open, how to end--scene or summary, and how to balance them throughout
6. When to zoom close and when to pull away--psychic distance
7. Who the characters really are--desires, flaws, driving beliefs.

Unless you're one of those rigorous outliners who has to nail it all down before starting to write, it's clear that this is only going to happen over a few to several drafts, with some good reflecting, note-taking, organizing, reworking time in between.
And then too, in among the literal and tedious material, there will be a few gems that remain, leaving their traces in the story. Drafts need to be--well, drafty. With some large holes to let the cold critical breezes in that will show me how to reshape the work.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis

Hmm, I wanted very much to love this 2009 Batchelder Honor book but I found myself unable to do so.

Ahmad Mudhi is a Rajah, supposedly Muslim but choosing his 8th wife. So I tripped up right away on that, plus no Muslim rulers to my knowledge ever used the title of "Raja". All right, this is fantasy but it seems to operate on the old premise of writing about one group of people for a readership that will consist of quite another. The girl Safia, now Raka (supposedly Hindu, but Safia? Not a Hindu name, surely) is not a virgin. Okay, that works for me, even becomes intriguing as we go on to find out that the eunuch Lalit is not an eunuch. But wait--Farhad Kamal is supposed to be a Hindu name? I found Tiger Moon to be a confusing and complicated story that also managed to mangle the Hindu mythological stories of Krishna and Rama together in ways that seemed completely unnecessary. Everyone’s after the bloodstone and Farhad has to rescue Krishna’s daughter. By this time I just wanted to be done. But Ravana’s involved as well—oh, I was SO confused, more so by the praise the book was garnering!

The mythology isn't the only thing bowdlerized. All the regions of India seem rolled into one , which not only adds to the confusion but homogenizes the entire subcontinent by implying that gestures, behavior, customs can be transplanted easily from one to the other.

The expository text contains vast generalizations about India, the kind a tourist might make after a few months traveling the country. The statement up front about Indians not valuing life made me go pull out my Complete Works of Rudyard Kipling. I found these fragments of exposition in a variety of stories, voiced very much like the declarations Michaelis makes about India:

"Now India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously..."(Plain Tales From the Hills)
"All hours of the twenty-four are alike to Orientals..."(Kim)
"Herding in India is one of the laziest things in the world." (The Jungle Book)
"All kinds of magic are out of date and done with except in India where nothing changes..."(The Bisara of Pooree)

To me it seemed as if Michaelis may have been channeling Kipling. Which is fine, except that Kipling obviously did Kipling a whole lot better! And his exposition, whatever its tone, was always relevant to the story. If you really study the man's work, it's a primer in the construction of story. Nothing is gratuitous, whether you agree with it or not. In contrast, the expository bits in Tiger Moon felt throwaway.

Some things made sense—the hijra dancer, and how the foreigner keeps changing, sometimes French, sometimes English, sometimes German. That was a brilliant touch, a commentary on the history of colonialism in the region that added momentum to the story.

Lots of dramatic story twists, but in all I somehow didn't care about anyone except perhaps the tiger. Thanks to Reeta Sinha who helped me clarify my reactions to this book.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Twelve years of teaching on writers.com

In 1997, my husband, son, and I moved with all our belongings, and Peppercorn our bad-tempered old cat, to New Mexico. That was when I started offering classes on writing for children through writers.com, first using listservs and then over time through Nicenet's Internet Classroom Assistant. Mark Dahlby, who runs writers.com with patience, calm and incredible goodwill, allowed me to try out an introductory class, an advanced workshop, a class on writing picture book text. In effect, he said, I trust you. Do what you think will work. A terrifying thought.

Twelve years later, I can say in honesty that every little scrap that I know about teaching writing, I learned in that virtual classroom from my students.

Since last year, I've been working on a transition plan. I'm stepping away from that online teaching, only because I don't have enough hours in the day to teach at Vermont College, visit schools, and--oh yes I do need to keep writing. I'm leaving my online classes in the capable hands of two fine writers and VC graduates. We set up an internship process where they'd hang out in my class for a session or two, figure out how I do things, decide what will work for them, and find their own balance.

I'm thrilled to announce that Debby Edwardson has just completed the first 8-week session of First Steps for beginning writers who want to write for young readers. Sarah Aronson and I are just concluding a 10-week session of the Manuscript Workshop, filled with amazing work in progress ranging from picture books to novels, rich with conversation about craft, and replete with discovery about how stories come to be. And yes, Sarah is the human alarm clock in this post from Through the Tollbooth. In these classes, we have opened doors, arrived at insights, and celebrated successes including agent signings, contracts, publication, and more. Thank you to everyone who made this journey possible for me. It's my delight to pass the love on.