My son pulled out A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books last weekend for yet another reading. We have read them together again and again through the years, and still find something new to enjoy each time. My son appreciates the gentle humor and easy relationships between the characters, I think.
While reading the books, I often pictured Milne telling the same stories to Christopher Robin in a big old armchair, a scruffy Pooh bear tucked in beside them, lit by a nice fire crackling in the fireplace. I often wondered how Christopher Robin benefited from having these wonderful stories written just for him. Therefore, when I spotted Enchanted Places, an autobiographical work by Christopher Milne, I was eager to find out what his life had been like.
As is often the case, imagination does not quite meet reality. The Just-Pooh.com website has a description of Christopher Milne’s life if you want to get a quick summary. Basically, as was the culture at that time and place, Christopher Robin was raised by a nanny and sent off to boarding school. He had little interaction with his father and he did not enjoy the stories at all. He felt the books were more about his father than himself.
It was a rude awakening to realize this could be true of my writing, too. I keep Christopher Milne’s resentful words in mind whenever I write something “for” my son. I hope it keeps me more honest.
Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne
When We Were Very Young (Pooh Original Edition) by A. A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard
If you are interested in children’s literature, here is one event you just can’t miss. Next week, starting on March 9, 2009, there is going to be a blog tour called “Share a Story – Shape a Future.” Each day they will have a group of bloggers sharing ideas around a specific theme. Book giveaways and free downloads will be announced by the various hosts. Check Share a Story for the tour schedule. It starts at one of my favorite blogs, “The Miss Rumphius Effect.”
See the cute bear logo link in my sidebar? Elizabeth Dulemba did the artwork.
Have you ever taken a class or read an article about writing children’s picture books? One of the first things you learn is that the writer should only send the words, in the form of a manuscript, to the publisher. If the editor who reads the words likes them and can sell them, he or she will pick an illustrator to create the amazing art that also tells the story. With a few notable exceptions (like Eric Carle), there are writers and there are illustrators in the world of picture books.
Have you ever taken that fact a step further, to its logical conclusion? What about the children who read picture books? Aren’t some of them writers and some of them illustrators? Sure, each should learn a little bit about the other’s craft. Everyone should take art and everyone should study writing. What I am wondering, however, is whether the artists/illustrators should be forced always to express their stories in words, especially in our increasing visual world of computers and graphic novels?
Tell me what you think and whether you are a writer, an illustrator or one of the lucky few who can do both.
Have you ever had the problem that you loved a book and you want to recommend it to your preteen son or nephew, but the main character is a girl and you think that will put him off? On the other hand, you know your daughter/niece is a big reader, but will she enjoy a book with a boy as a main character? What about as a writer? Have you struggled whether your main character should be a boy or girl, in order to attract the most readers?
Writer Stephanie Tolan has solved this main character gender dilemma in a clever and elegant way in her book “Surviving the Applewhites” (HarperCollins). Ostensibly the main character is a thirteen-year-old boy named Jake, with spiky hair and a less-than-stellar reputation. However, his narration alternates with that of E.D., a twelve-year-old girl. One character narrates a chapter and then the other character narrates the next. By switching back and forth chapter-by-chapter, the genders have equal representation. Although it must not have been easy to plot, the switch is smooth. It never feels forced or contrived.
Jake and E.D. have strong voices against the backdrop of E.D.’s funny and eccentric family. Both feel out of place. E.D. feels left out because she thinks she is the only non-artist in her artistic family, Jake because he is an outsider who was thrust into the family when he was expelled from yet another school. Both find out about their own unique abilities by the end.
This book would work well as a read-aloud for families with sons and daughters, for mixed-gender book clubs or for literature classes. Boys and girls can relate to the characters as they choose, rather than being forced to decide one or the other. I hope more writers consider this model for their fiction.