I was bravely ploughing on with chapter 4 of my new Willow the Vampire adventure, when I discovered my story was taking a rather unexpected turn. This required me to rethink the entire plot, because to my great annoyance the underlying theme had changed – thanks to my wilful, mischievous protagonist having developed a mind of her own.
All truly great children’s stories – those that endure the test of time anyway – have an underlying theme that resonates with the reader, no matter what age they might be. Sometimes this theme might be self-discovery or being brave in the face of adversity or coping with something really difficult like the death of a parent. While on the surface there might be a really cracking story with all the usual twists and turns, the author’s intention will be that the book should be something more than just an adventure story. In other words, there will be layer after layer of themes that the writer has woven in, so readers of different age groups can make all manner of discoveries for themselves.
Deciding on an overall theme can sometimes be hard to do and will largely depend on the age range one is writing for. From a certain age onwards children begin to understand comparatively complex, abstract issues like love and hate, fear, revenge and betrayal. This is well demonstrated by the success of TV family shows like Dr Who and PIXAR movies, where the jokes and emotional moments are multi-layered so they appeal to an audience of different ages.
New children’s writers and those who perpetually underestimate children (yes, teachers and literature critics, I’m referring to YOU) often don’t get this and doggedly believe just a good “story” is needed to make young readers want to read a book. However, children writers today compete with TV, video and online games, books, comics, movies and the Internet in general for the short attention span a child has to commit to anything. Children are far more sophisticated than literature critics, teachers and many new children’s authors give them credit for, so their books need to reflect this, if they are to stand the test of time and become that fabled thing, a piece of “literature”.
Making abstract themes accessible to young, but accomplished readers who choose a novel for the age range 8 to 12 is naturally quite a challenge. Not every child reader will pick up on all the author’s intended subjects straight away. This may only happen at a later stage, when the story is re-read over time. Telling a multi-layered story then is what a dedicated author of children’s literature should be after to prolong the shelf-life of their work.
In my last blog entry I mentioned how we can use animals’ characteristics to express human traits of character as well as using certain types of animals as a metaphor for time passing during an important event in our storyline. It is also possible to use creatures of the night (or day) to mirror relationships that human protagonists have with each other.
In the animal version it often becomes much clearer what relationships signify – dogs and cats are deemed natural enemies, just like cats and mice or cats and birds. In the paranormal world this would then equate to vampires and werewolves for example or white witches against black magic witches, whereas in the human world the sensitive child becomes the natural victim of the bully in a schoolyard context, while teachers are typically everybody’s least favourite person.
Tolkien uses mirrored relationships – as well as mirrored locations – to great advantage in the Lord of the Rings. When we write about human protagonists, we are all too often distracted by what they are supposed to look like, their mannerisms and how they are supposed to carry our plot rushing from A to B.
It seems so much easier to express a number of complex emotional issues with the assistance of animals – presumably this is why Philip Pullman included the idea of daemons into His Dark Materials and J K Rowling used the Patronus spell in Harry Potter’s books to show us each individual’s true self (Harry’s takes the form of a stag, his mother’s took the form of a doe).
Can you think of other novels, where authors have used animals to mirror a human’s inner self?
In my new Willow novel I decided to use the “mirror” technique to show how different relationships can work – some relationships are between adults, some between children, some between vampires and humans and some are inter-vampire relationships…and all of them are upset by a bunch of ghosts!
The ghost element of my story will be the most difficult to deal with. They are no longer “concrete” beings, but spirits with their own agenda who might be anything they choose to be, even physically. The nature of ghosts in literature, folklore and film is often that they have unresolved issues and as long as they resolve them, they can finally go to rest. What if they don’t want to though, what if their intention is to ensnare humans to allow ghostly entities back into this world?
What if ghosts wish to become flesh once more and have another stab at LIFE, that precious commodity we treat in such a cavalier fashion until somebody tells us, it’s time to take our last breath?