Monday, November 24, 2008

Let the Frivolity Commence! (And Then Stop. Stop That, I Mean It.)

I just had a question regarding children's books. Do they have to have a deep, moral point; or can they just be somewhat frivilous?
On the surface, this seems like a softball question, doesn't it? Of course there are frivolous children's books. Is there a deep, moral point in I Ain't Gonna Paint No More or When a Monster is Born or Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus? Don't be silly.

However: Before we shake our heads and smile and talk about the (indisputable, overwhelming) truth that children love frivolous; they love nonsense; they love play . . .

Let's make sure we're also talking about what sells.

Yeah, there's the catch. Frivolous all by itself doesn't sell. I see piles of manuscripts in slush that clearly don't think they need to do anything for the reader outside of appealing to his/her imagination, because kids love frivolous/nonsense/play. Know what the problem with that is?

Adults have small, obedient wallets that live in their bags and come out whenever the adult wants. Children have large, judgmental wallets shaped like parents.

I Ain't Gonna Paint No More uses humor, a narrative structure that fosters guessing, body parts, and an really easy to read, energetic rhythm.
When a Monster is Born uses humor, a narrative structure that fosters guessing, and cause and effect (ok, and monsters).
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus
uses humor, audience participation, and turns a familiar situation (whining) around on the child.

None of these books has a deep, moral lesson at heart, but each one is working hard to offer the reader an entertaining, layered experience.

That's what you can sell-- layers of things people want. Not just one layer, because you're in competition with piles of books with many layers-- that do many jobs. And not layers of things that people aren't so excited about, because books aren't free.

Even if one day they are free, they'll still cost people the time it takes to read them, and nobody wants to waste their time on something that is only frivolous.


SWILUA said...

I think that every now and then frivolity can be its own kind of morality--like Seuss or Amelia Bedelia. (Maybe the problem with a lot of frivolity is that it isn't done well?)

Chris Eldin said...

I heart this post.
I was just talking with a writer friend on the phone about this very topic. I don't want to write issue books. I want to make kids laugh and be grossed out (a bit, not too much), and on a deeper level..problem solve.
I'll find out soon if this can sell or not. But it's what I love to write.

Andy J Smith illustration said...

Regardless of deep moral theme or frivolous silliness or any combo of the two, i think the #1 priority is to entertain children (and hopefully make it salable along the way?)

I like your reiteration of LAYERS

Anonymous said...

Yes, thank you for reminding us of layers! It's a great way to think about just how much goes into "simple" books such as Mo Willems'.

And know that I am very grateful for you this Thanksgiving, EA! I raise a spoonful of squash to you! (Just in case you're vegetarian ...)

Anonymous said...

Children love to dream and pretend. A book for children should provide the forum to do just that, freely and imaginatively.

Ebony McKenna. said...

I love reading to my son and doing all the voices.
Here's another reason why a book needs layers - parents will be reading them again, and again, and again... oh god make it stop.
But seriously, Thank you writers and illustrators for giving parents a bit of a giggle too.

Wombat stew, wombat stew,
hot and spicey
oh so nicey
wombat stew....

Anonymous said...

As a fine artist starting out creating - gasp - whimsical work, I added a tag-line to my business cards:
"Art doesn't have to be serious not to be trivial".

Not being self important takes a lot of work....

Anonymous said...

Some people might say that this gives a book weight.

Anonymous said...

So children's books are like ogres, huh? Or is it parfaits? :)

The Crystal Faerie said...

Love the ogres thing and the layers. And it's very true. An adult doesnt typically want to buy a book just because their kid likes it. As the oldest in a family with six "yung'ns" I can attest to that. If there isn't something of a point to it, it's prettymuch worthless.
even candy.

Mary said...

Great post. It's my opinion that a children's book is harder to write than one for adults. While entertaining the child and teaching him a love of words, you also have to pique the interest of the parent.

essays said...

Very interesting post! Thanks.

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