This has been a painful and frightening week for a lot of people. At a time like this — when there such immediate need for change in the world — it feels hard to justify the work of writing children’s stories. What could be more frivolous? In many ways, my book Sophie Quire was about this very question. But in the time since I finished Sophie, the question has only plagued me more. What is the point of a children’s story? It’s a good time to remember GK Chesterton’s words:
I might add something to this, which is that it’s important to write children’s stories so that the next generation can know a monster when they see it.
This last week for my Children’s Literature course, we read Treasure Island. This is a book I have loved for a long time — the character of Old Pew was a major influence on Peter Nimble.
Recently, I had students watch a lecture by Mike Hill about the subtextual themes of Jurassic Park. Hill does a great job explaining how great stories contain a primal/Jungian undercurrent that runs beneath the surface plot — in the case of JP it was about the anxiety of creating a family.
The lecture paid off nicely while discussing Treasure Island this week. When we look at Jim Hawkins’ journey through Hill’s lens, it becomes clear that Treasure Island is the story of a boy who has lost his father and refuses to accept that reality. And so he searches for replacement father figures, all of whom disappoint him in different ways until he can finally accept the truth: he is no longer a child.
I have long thought that the true climax of Treasure Island comes not when they find the treasure, but in a scene right before that, where Jim defies the advice of the morally-upright Dr. Livesey to break his promise to Long John Silver and escape:
“Jim,” the doctor interrupted, and his voice was quite changed, “Jim, I can’t have this. Whip over, and we’ll run for it.”
“Doctor,” said I, “I passed my word.”
“I know, I know,” he cried. “We can’t help that, Jim, now. I’ll take it on my shoulders, holus bolus, blame and shame, my boy; but stay here, I cannot let you. Jump! One jump, and you’re out, and we’ll run for it like antelopes.”
“No,” I replied; “you know right well you wouldn’t do the thing yourself–neither you nor squire nor captain; and no more will I. Silver trusted me; I passed my word, and back I go.”
This is the defining test of Jim’s character — a moment where he places the integrity of his word as an English Gentleman over even his life.
It calls to mind the values of the age so well captured in Kipling’s poem “If …?”, another text we read for this class. A daunting list to be sure, but one I think this book strives for:
For those interested, you can see the Hill lecture pasted below. It’s worth checking out!
Earlier this year, I took a break from my own novels to play in someone else’s sandbox: The Burning Tide is the heartstopping conclusion to the blockbuster Spirit Animals series.
These books are all written by different authors–including names like Shanon Hale, Garth Nix, Brandon Mull, and Marie Lu. Fans of the books are also encouraged to log onto Scholastic’s site, where there’s a pretty impressive video-game world that fills out the experience. Click here to read an excerpt of the first three chapters. It was great diving into the world of Spirit Animals … hope you enjoy!
When I teach my Children’s Literature course, I always start with a lecture on the “Golden Age” of children’s literature–starting with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and ending (to my thinking) with Peter & Wendy. I wrap up the lecture by identifying six Golden Age children’s authors who set the template for what the genre would become in the century to follow. On the list is L Frank Baum, who I credit with creating something that has perhaps had the greatest impact on contemporary storytelling: platform worldbuilding.
The 1939 movie has made such a cultural impact that it’s hard to remember the Oz books for what they really are. Baum’s books weren’t just about Dorothy and Toto. There were dozens of Oz stories containing hundreds of characters. The books continued even after his death. Baum himself wrote 18. They were published around the holidays and it was a tradition among children to get the new Oz book for Christmas. He wasn’t just telling a single story, Baum was building a WORLD.
Storytelling utilizes three main tools: character, setting, and action. At various points in history, popular stories have emphasized one or another of these elements. Presently, we are entering an age that celebrates setting above all. Today we value not just compelling narratives (Shakespeare) or characters (Dickens), but settings rich enough to contain a multitude of characters and plots. Think of visionaries like Tolkien, Gygax, Lucas, Roddenberry, Jack Kirby — their legacies are not single narratives so much as entire universes. Part of the reason this brand of storytelling has ascended is because it allows the creation of franchises–which are very valuable. Another bigger reason is because it fits more seamlessly into interactive storytelling (video games); what is World of Warcraft if not an ever-expanding narrative landscape?
One might argue that Scott or Homer worked within this tradition, but I think the real innovator was Baum. In Oz, Baum created a place that could contain infinite stories … which was a pretty radical concept at the time. So the next time you see yet another Star Wars movie in the cineplex, or yet another version of Zelda at Gamestop, thank Baum. or curse him.
Every fall I teach a class at
Hogwarts Chatham University’s MFA program. It’s a great opportunity to spend time with young writers and talk about children’s literature! This year, I’m shaking up my standard reading list, and I thought I’d share it for those who want to play at home:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Peter & Wendy by JM Barrie
Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
Charlotte’s Web by EB White
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
A Monster Calls (movie) dir. JA Bayona
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird
A lot of thought goes into the selection of a reading list. Even the best books can get stale over time, and it’s important to strike a balance between books that teach well (Peter Pan, Charlotte’s Web) and books that excite me (A Monster Calls, Crenshaw). This year, I decided to multitask and include a number of books that tie into my own current work in progress … which is to say that there are CLUES about my next novel buried in this list!