Some Thoughts on Harry Potter, Lucy Pevensie, Alice, and Compasses…

Here’s a confession- I’ve always wanted to write Children’s literature.

Oh, not any typical children’s lit/young adult book, I’ve always dreamt of doing something groundbreaking, stupendous. So, in other words, I’ve built up the idea so much in my head that I can’t even begin to start. None of the ideas I get reach that level. Of course, none could.

Why do I love the idea of writing a book in this genre? Because this is the gateway drug for all good readers (I plan to stop the drug references there). We don’t start by reading War and Peace; we start by reading Lewis Carroll and his Alice. A good children’s lit book will inspire a reader (and writer) for decades afterwards.

I can go on about this for pages–and I’ll probably talk about it again at some point–but let me focus today on one thing I love and two things I think children and young adult lit needs help on.

WONDER

No genre does it better.

The reason why no genre does it better is that you are experiencing the wonder through the eyes  of a child. It connects the reader (old and young) to those moments when they felt wonder and amazement as a kid. For example, like finding Christmas presents under a Christmas tree; wondering what is inside and how they ever got there. That memory, that feeling is there for a good story to tap into.

“Wonder” is big in children’s lit. From Alice falling down the rabbit hole, to Harry Potter walking onto Platform 9 3/4  for the first time they are sketched throughout hundreds of books good and bad in the genre. However, in my opinion, no book does it better than The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

While I think most adults (including myself) would be understandably upset to walk through a closet and end up in another world, Lewis with Lucy finds a childlike innocent about the notion. From the lightpole to the fawn, Mr Tumnus (Something else that would probably have made an adult character… freak out, should we say?), the fact that Lewis was able from his stuffy literary college classrooms to understand a child’s pure reaction is an achievement. In many ways it set the standard that taught the other writers that followed.

Personally, when I dive into children’s lit, I plan to avoid wonder. Not because I can’t do it, it’s just that it feels very done for me right now. I’d rather take the Tolkien approach and scale down the wonder by having characters that already exist in that world. Yes, there is some wonder in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but never as much as you would see in The Phantom Tollbooth, for example, because the furry-footed ones expect it to a certain degree. Here’s a more real example, when you see the Statue of Liberty for the first time, you are impressed and awed, but it is not like walking into a secret garden and finding the statue looking down at you and offering you a scone.

ENDINGS

Here is one thing children/young adult lit typically has a lot of problem with. I’m not sure if this because of bad planning part of the time, or if it is just that the expectations are set so high by the children readers that they can never reach it.  From the series His Dark Materials (Why people love this series I will never know; it always feels so bleak to me, no joy) to the Harry Potter series this is very hit or miss.

Let’s talk about Harry Potter.

I liked the epilogue.

There, I said it.

I think it summed up the journey for the characters perfectly and left the world in such a moment that I feel closure. I don’t need to return to Hogwarts. Not to say, I wouldn’t read a new book, I just don’t NEED a new book. JK Rowling succeeded there.

However, here is where she gets me (and this is my one fault with the entire enterprise)- the real ending of the book and wand lore. Here is what I mean (and I apologize if you don’t know the books well or have not read them), but if the Elder Wand can’t hurt Harry because he is the rightful owner of it, how can Voldemort do an Avada Kedavra at Harry in the Forbidden Forest? How could the wand have KNOWN that Harry would choose life and not to “get on the train?”  If anything the wand should have flown out of Voldemort’s hands at that moment and not later on.

OK, I love JK Rowling’s writing and I look forward to her future books, but if wand lore was going to be so important why wasn’t it discussed throughout the series? Yes, in the first book we hear that the wand chooses the wizard, but all of the other references after that are very subtle (Like Neville after he got a new one is a great little example).

Still, I would choose the ending of the Potter series over His Dark Materials any day of the week. While I loved the vision of the “new death” the rest of the ending is such a collection of last minutes ideas and characters thrown together that I found it exhausting. I don’t know if it was bad planning on his part or what (I lean towards bad planning), but when an adult reader finds it a mess, I can’t imagine what the children readers think.

So my advice here: If you are writing a series that is going to be more than one book, take the time to plan, plan, plan. And why not, throughout the other books, hint and lead up to the endings so the reader feels like it naturally all comes together (Readers rarely know how much work writers have to do to make something feel “natural”).  Don’t just throw it all together at the end. The Lord of the Rings is a great example of how a series builds to a great ending, of course that is really not a young adult book.

Oh, and I am not going to mention The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. Not going to mention it one bit… Well, at least in this section.

HEAVY HANDED

I love symbolism, it is a great tool. I sprinkle it like cinnamon on buttered toast in my stories, but when writing for children it seems authors don’t think kids get subtlety. Where in an adult book, it can be a common occurring color, in a children’s book, it is discussed on every page, people notice and discuss it, and maybe the character even has a name that references the color. Too much!

OK, let’s talk about the mess of The Last Battle now. I don’t know what kool-aide Lewis was drinking to think that was a nice warm ending (That is my second drug reference, sorry).  They all died in a train wreck! Can you imagine what their mother experienced when she heard the news!? Thanks Aslan! What a great image of destiny and love. ARGH!

Yet that is not what gets me,  the religious metaphor of the entire book is exhausting.  While I love The Magician’s Nephew (beautiful, beautiful book) and it has religious symbolism as well, it is never as heavy-handed and over the top as this book.

I’m all for giving positive messages to kids (Again, I don’t find anything positive about The Last Battle, if anything it makes me want to be one of the dwarfs in darkness), but seriously writers, just have a character say it or have them learn it (and then think it), you don’t need to go to extremes. Give the reader credit, focus on the story first. Here is an example with the heavy-handedness took over the book to the point that there is no real story in it… Yes, I said it, The Last Battle has no story.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m sure I will write about this stuff again and again, I do love this genre. I’ll typically always give an author a chance, especially a children’s lit author because of the amount of creativity they get to use on the page. And if one considers the impact a good book in this genre can have on literature and readers for an entire generation, it should make every writer stop and consider its importance.

Except maybe Stephanie Meyers. I really have no interest in Twilight.

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3 responses

  1. I agree with pretty much everything you said here, including the bits about His Dark Materials, even though I loved that series. But most, I agree with your feeling about why writing for kids is so magical. For anyone who learned to love reading at an early age, these are the stories we go back to in our hearts when we read something new. These stories are what we compare all other literature against, for better or worse. These stories are the ones that elicit the most intense feelings, which ultimately we’re trying to re-experience when we open the cover of a new book. As an author, I can’t imagine wanting to write anything less than that or for any audience less engaged. I love writing for children!

    • Thank you for reading! Even though I have yet to complete something officially in children’s literature there are elements of the fantastical in many of my pieces (Megan and My Problem With Doors being the most obvious). Good luck with your books! Cheers.

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