New Trend in Kids-Lit – Adults Don’t Exist
Apologies for slipping off the blog train – I’ve been hard at the writing for the past couple of months meeting some deadlines (no excuse, I just feel I should offer some bogus excuse). But enough about my shortcomings! I’d like to share with you my observations about a not-so-subtle trend in the Kid-Lit world, and I invite you to respond with your feelings on the matter.
Publishers are demanding that Kid-Lit books do not have adult characters that play an important role in the story. The adult is becoming increasingly a persona non grata. They can exist, but only in the distant background – and I mean really distant. The thinking behind this trend to some extent is rooted in common sense, and it’s hardly new. Kids want to read about characters they relate to, which means the main characters in a Kids-Lit book will be kids. A book about a 50-year old’s struggle with a mid-life crisis may have tremendous literary merit, but it will not have much success with the ten-year old crowd. The issue I am raising is whether the trend to to do away with adult characters is a positive development.
Common sense tells us also that kids must navigate a world populated by adults – a world that is in fact dominated by them. A survey of most Kid_Lit today suggests that kids today spent most of their time far away from adults, however. This trick is easy enough to mange with certain genres, such as fantasy. The story is not real in the first place, so dispensing with adults is not that difficult. The trick is not as simple with reality-based fiction, and in fact, the lengths taken to accomplish the task raises issues with how reality-based the fiction really is.
In more specific terms, a kid-driven plot line that excludes any adult interaction greatly limits potential story lines. Where can you have a story with kids who exist without adults? You’re left with the schoolyard, summer romances, and runaway-type adventures, and even these can push the boundaries of common sense when adults are written out.
The trend towards adult exclusion also leads to more stereotypical adult characters. The writer cannot spend many lines to build adult characters. But some adults are needed, if only to explain how the kids manage to be dressed and fed. To overcome this challenge more and more writers resort to stereotypes, which provide a useful shorthand to get a point across. The overprotective mother, the inattentive father, the evil old man, the nasty teacher, these stereotypes become the writers only option when publishers will not permit the time and page space necessary to create nuanced, interesting, and important adult characters.
And as most writers know, pointing out exceptions to this rule, such as the wise-adult character of Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter, will be met with blank expressions from publishers – if you’re lucky.
In fact, I’d hazard to say that the modern equivalent of a Huckleberry Finn would not be published today because of the Jim character. A publisher would want two kids on that raft floating down the Mississippi (and they’d probably also demand that they wear life jackets and helmets).
I’m all for kid-driven story lines. That’s the genre. I have a problem with the exclusion of all adult influences in these stories. Wise adults can be overbearing and patronizing. They can also be a powerful character device that kids relate to (see Dumbledore reference above). I am currently rewriting a book because my agent objected to the use of certain adult characters. Those adults are being written out, and replaced by their kids. I’m not sure it will be a better book because of it. The best I can say is I hope it it will be published.
Let me know how you feel. Am I off the mark? Have you been able to include well-rounded adult characters in your work?
New week: I’ll be blogging about an issue I mentioned a couple months ago – the difficulty in rewriting a manuscript to satisfy the demands of agents/publishers. When do the revisions go too far? We may admire James Joyce for refusing to compromise with publishers – but it did take 9 years to publish Dubliners; and I am of the mind that you should be a James Joyce if you want to act like him.
Let’s write soon.