Monday, April 16, 2012

Mentor Monday: More on Age-Appropriate Literature

Last time I wrote that writers for children should keep their audiences in mind as they create. Children, I believe, need to grow into their literature just as they need to grow into any other skill. We don’t expect a toddler to run a 5k race. Neither should we expect a young reader to handle the intricacies of stories meant for people with more life experience.

That is not to say that I feel children should be sheltered from difficult topics such as violence, death, or sex. Rather, I think we should give children the “just enough” needed to keep our reader emotionally vested in a story without overloading them with extra information they might not be ready to digest.

A six-year-old who asks, “Mom, where do babies come from?” is satisfied with the answer “A baby grows in a mother’s tummy” and is not ready to hear all about menstruation, gestation periods, amniocentesis, etc.

Writers can use difficult topics in stories and present them in ways that are suitable for the intended reader. The following three examples show a progression of information on the subject of death. Notice some of the techniques used to describe the death of each character:

From Lois Lowry, p. 129 Number the Stars:

Peter Neilsen was dead. It was a painful fact to recall on this day when there was so much joy in Denmark. But Annemarie forced herself to think of the her redheaded almost-brother, and how devastating the day was when they received the news that Peter had been captured and executed by the Germans in the public square at Ryvangen, in Copenhagen.

He had written a letter to them from prison the night before he was shot. It had simply that he loved them, that he was not afraid, and that hew as proud to have done what he could for his country and for the sake of all free people.

The main character of this novel is 10-year-old Annemarie. The intended reader will be about the same age. There’s a lot of tension in this story of the Holocaust as it played out in occupied Denmark. Young readers learn about the mistreatment of the Jewish Danes, fearsome Nazi soldiers, and the cleverness of the Danish Resistance.

Lowry tells the story in the third person. Using this technique removes the reader from the immediacy of the action because it is happening to someone else, someone we are learning about.

Peter Neilsen is a minor character. His death is sad because he is close to Annemarie’s family. His character comes in and out of the story. He’s mysterious because he’s part of the Danish Resistance. Because he’s mysterious, the reader does not develop the attachment he/she would to the protagonist.

Peter’s death is described after the climax of the story and it is told as if we are hearing what a stranger might have told Annemarie and her family. Now the reader is even further removed from the action. The reader is not a “witness” to death but instead, to hearsay. The death has occurred “off-stage.” There is no detailed description of the shooting or its aftermath. It is a truth told in its most succinct way. The scene will probably not elicit serious discomfort in the child reader because the reader has been shielded using the layers of past tense, third person, and the elimination of a minor character. Compare this scene to the death scene from Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:

“They found the Burke girl this morning down in the creek.”
“No,” he said, finding his voice. “Leslie wouldn’t drown. She could swim real good.”
“That old rope you kids been swinging on broke.” His father went quietly and relentlessly on. “They think she musta hit her head on something when she fell.”
“No.” He shook his head. “No.”
His father looked up. “I’m real sorry, boy.”
“No!” Jess was yelling now. “I don’t believe you. You’re lying to me!”
pp. 103-104

Jesse, the main character, is in 5th grade—about a year older than Number the Stars’ Annemarie. The expected reader of this novel will be slightly older, too. The reading level is just a bit higher.

Paterson also uses the third person and past tense. The protagonist, and consequently the reader, are not in the moment of death but reading about a moment that has already gone by. The reader is again three times removed from the death but here comes the subtle differences. There is a bit more description of the exact moment of death (“rope…broke; musta hit her head when she fell.”) The main character is being fed the facts of the death shortly after it occurred. The deceased is the person most important to the protagonist. The death is personal. Unlike Annemarie learning about Peter after the climax of the story, Leslie’s death is the climax. The author gives the reader more truth to digest in this novel.

Young adult novels often go even further as in this example from The Hunger Games shows:

“A boy, I think from District 9, reaches the pack at the same time I do and for a brief time we grapple for it and then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed by the warm sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That’s when I see the knife in his back.”
p. 150

This passage describes the first death scene in the Games. Suzanne Collins bring her reader right up to the action. She uses first person so the reader becomes the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Collins uses present tense. We are in the moment with Katniss, struggling for the backpack, feeling the sudden discomfort (…blood…warm sticky spray…) We see what Katniss sees when she sees it: the knife in the tribute’s back.

Collins is asking her readers to be there at the moment of death. The tribute killed off first is nobody in particular ("…I think, from District 9…") so we are one step removed because we, like Katniss, have developed no strong feelings for this dead person. The young adult reader should be able to absorb this more graphic description because an older reader has a more developed sense or what is real and what is created.

As you write your novel, think about your reader. He/she will be about the age of your protagonist or slightly younger. Think about children you know or the child you were at that age. Experiment with tense, person, and description when creating difficult scenes and see how the truth plays out.


I'm Jet . . . said...

Spot on! Very important differences that writers shoulder understand....

Barbara said...

Great info, Mur, and great examples!