I’ve been reading the first three novels in Joan Aiken’s wonderful ‘Wolves’ series, a succession of childrens’ books set in an alternate nineteenth century where the Stuarts never left the British throne.
Kids books are deceptively hard to write; but when done well they render all the things that books should be into a clear package. In fiction that means building the plot around the character arc – interlocking the dramatic tension with the way that the lead character or characters change and learn.
Does this mean, though, that the stories should be simplified – dumbed down – for the age bracket? I’ve written kids’ books myself, non-fiction, and my answer there is a resounding no. It’s important to present the real world in all its complexities.
The trick is how those complexities are presented, including vocabulary. Just to put that in perspective, the target reading age for a newspaper is 8-10. But what about novels? Aiken’s books got me pondering. By today’s standards it wouldn’t be hard to be critical of Aiken’s world. Her characters are utterly clear-cut; villains have black hearts and no redeeming features. The good guys are wholly good, kind, helpful – virtuous. There are also far too many coincidences in her world. Characters run randomly into other characters who happen to be integrally tied with the plot. And yet this was very much the nature of kids books of the mid-twentieth century, when Aiken began writing the series. Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians was of similar ilk.
That ‘keep it simple’ approach also didn’t apply so much to the main characters – as Aiken well understood, a simplified character can’t have a particularly interesting character arc. Some of her characters, indeed, were very well thought out. Dido Twite, an urchin from slum-land London, in particular. In the sense that secondary characters don’t need to be so well fleshed out, that was correct technique.
But today, I think, the onus is also on to make secondary characters more complex – even in outline – than Aiken did. The modern story floats in shades of grey, and that’s true, I think, even for kids’ books. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015