Not Everything Comes Back in Style

Yesterday I wrote about the resurgence of episodic fiction in children's literature. Books like The Penderwicks and even The Graveyard Book exemplify this trend. Both books contain stand alone episodes. However they don't include some other traits found in classic kiddie lit. It turns out that not everything found in those works of bygone days is making a comeback.

For instance, omniscient narrators still don't make appearances in modern children's books. The POV these days is almost very close to the main character. Occasionally, there will be multiple points of view, but those are tricky to do well. Instead, most books use a limited narration that is so close to one character's view point, that it almost can be written in first person.

Another thing you won't find in a modern kid's book is author intrusion (or interruption if you prefer that term). In my favorite of the Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy, CS Lewis makes the following statement (badly paraphrased from memory by me): "In Calormen the children were taught to tell stories much the way English children are taught to write essays. But while people want to hear the stories, I've never met anyone who wants to read the essays."

Now, that is probably my favorite example of all time of author intrusion. It's funny, witty, charming, and horribly true. However, it has no place in a modern children's book. For one thing, it breaks the fictional dream and pulls the reader out of the story. For another, it takes the story off into a tangent. Modern books are written in a more concise, straight narrative form. Author intrusions these days just seem to stick out. I've yet to see one in a manuscript I've worked on that hasn't needed to be cut.

And finally, the various -isms -- sexism, racism, ageism, etc -- are completely unacceptable in modern literature. Gone (mercifully) are the days of perfectly PC books, but blatant or even subtle -isms that aren't in a book to specifically show how bad they are are unacceptable. And you wouldn't want to read them anyway. Reading the sexism in the original Tom Swift or the racism in the original Nancy Drew made me want to gag. Although instructive from a historical perspective of how bad it used to be, there is no need to duplicate those kinds of stereotypes today.

So remember, regardless of the type or style of book you are writing, try to avoid weird omniscient narrators, author intrusions, and -isms. The editor that has to work on your manuscript will appreciate it.


susiej said...

The Lemony Snickett books had constant author intrusion. I'm a big Narnia fan, but didn't much care for Snickett. However, they were best sellers and my daughter and her friends and classmates read the entire series. I think at first, the kids actually liked the funny side comments- maybe because they're rarely done anymore- though as the series went to 13, it got old.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I was surprised to see the "dear Reader" comments in The Tale of Desperaux. Still, it worked.

Timothy Fish said...

The author has to know when to use it and when not, but author intrusion is something I like to see in a book. When the author knows how to use it, it tells me that the author understands that his narrator is a seperate character and is not, in fact, the protagonist writing about himself in third person. When used well, it gives us the sense that we are sitting by the fireplace listening to a friend tell a story. Most of the time, he simply relays the story, but occassionally he tells us a little extra that he knows we will want to hear.

The Buried Editor said...

The problem of course is that they are almost never done well. They tend to come off as either snide or condescending. Of course, in the Snickett books, that was the whole point. But the Dear Reader comments didn't work for me in Tale of Desperaux. I found them condescending, and they are the main thing that put me off the entire book. In my opinion, the best intrusions are the ones where the author isn't commenting on the abilities of the reader or pointing out things the reader should know but doesn't. In other words the best ones don't directly address the reader. (Unless, again, like in the Snickett books, the whole point is to have sarcastic comments to the reader.)

The other problem is that it's difficult to get just right number of intrusions. Too many, and they start distracting from the story. Too few, and they are equally distracting by seeming to appear out of nowhere.

It's one of those things that if you have them in the first draft, great leave them in. But when you go to revise you have to carefully consider them. They are definitely one of those things that have to be working perfectly in the text, or they should be removed.