Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Driver Who Gets the Car Stuck in a Ditch Does Not Get to Ask Me if I Enjoyed the "Trip"

I recently re-read The Little House in the Big Woods. I love Laura as a character, but I was struck by how plotless the book is. It has a structure--that of the year. And it has a sort of Robinson Crusoe charm, as we learn how to do everything from skinning a pig to making maple sugar. But what about plot? How important is plot in a book for grade-school age children?
A plot is a good idea.
Is it possible to create a charming and readable book without a plot? Yes, if you're talented enough. Is it possible to create a charming and readable book without a plot and in which practically nothing happens? Ditto.


a. Let's remember that we're talking about Advanced Writing here, so please please PLEASE do not assume you can write your very first book without a plot or occurrences of any kind. Probably not your second, either. And maybe none of them.

If you construct a car, people are going to expect to see it go someplace. If you create one of the most fascinating and beautiful cars ever, then maybe people won't mind if you don't create it with an engine and they can only watch it sitting there for 300 pages.

b. When you decide to think about other books in comparison to the book you are trying to sell DON'T COMPARE IT TO BOOKS THAT WERE PUBLISHED MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS AGO PLEASE YOU ARE KILLING ME. Such decades-old books are still selling partially because of their writing... and partially because they're old and "classic" and adults (aka 'people with money to spend') remember them fondly from their own childhoods. Not because people would necessarily choose them over new books if those classics were new themselves.*

*please note I have nothing against the Little House books and reader outrage and/or allegations of slander are unnecessary. Certain other "classics", however...


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I just read a post by a young blogger who created a long list of books that have been challenged (She did a series of posts on Banned Books Week). She put titles in bold of those she had read and liked and put lines through those she read and disliked. Guess what? The classics got the strike mark. While the writing may be marvelous and the books have important messages that withstand the test of time, if they do not speak to young people today, if they come across as slow, boring or archaic then we lose readers. Their place in the sun may have passed or it may be that one has to grow in maturity to appreciate them now. I think anyone writing today needs to study what is selling now. My two cents.

Unknown said...

I think you hit a key theme here: publishing has changed. A lot of the fantasy books (my genre) that inspired me to start writing wouldn't get through the query process today. I look back at series like Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince and find it hard to believe this same book could be published in this market. It doesn't invalidate the quality of these books, but it does mean that I've had to update my writing to work in the current climate. Namely, starting in media res, keeping the word count down, and working more with dialogue than description.

Anonymous said...

I have something against the Little House books. They're racist.

The fact that they're still being sold and no one's complaining makes me think they may have been edited and that new editions may tone down the remarks about "darkies" (Ms. Wilder's term, not mine) and Indians.

But the Little House books I remember reading as a child struck me, at the time, as racist.

Lindsey said...

Quite frankly, I thought the Little House books were quite boring as a child. Granted, I lived in farm country myself, so perhaps I wasn't as fascinated by it. I'll be curious to see what happens in the next 20 years with those books. None of my school children seem to read them anymore.

Tintin said...

"The fact that they're still being sold and no one's complaining makes me think they may have been edited and that new editions may tone down the remarks about "darkies" (Ms. Wilder's term, not mine) and Indians."

If they have, it's a very recent thing. I own two full sets of the books, purchased in the 1990s, and my editions of Little Town On The Prairie still includes an amateur blackface minstrel show.

I love the books a great deal, for a variety of reasons, but it is quite sad that they aren't generally taught with a discussion of race included in the general curriculum. (That is, if they're taught on more than a regional scale, something I've never been sure about; I had a Laura Ingalls Wilder unit in the fourth grade, but I also lived in one of the states she did.)

dylan said...

*please note I have nothing against the Little House books and reader outrage and/or allegations of slander are unnecessary. Certain other "classics", however...

Dear Ed Anon,

When I sent you the original note regarding "Kettlehead" it was with tongue firmly in cheek.

I first happened upon that book in our local library in the sixties, and even as a kid I recognized how grotesque and grisly it was. I couldn't believe anyone would have written such a gruesome story, let alone published it or purchased it for a library's children's section.

I brought it home to show my parents and it became a ghoulish in-house joke. They even took it to friends' houses for "show-and-tell".

The bizarre illogic of the whole thing and even the implied racial overtones - though he had nothing to do with her plight, it is the Indian cook whose fear of being unfairly blamed leads him to stick the kettle on her in the first place.

Another creepy plot-point you left out of your synopsis the other day is that the reason Santa had a doll's head to give her was because a bunch of "wild toy soldiers" had hacked the doll to pieces in his bag. Sweet.

If I had to choose between "Kettlehead" and "Sambo" as an offensive work of children's entertainment, Kettlehead would win hands down.

Still makes me laugh, though.


Editorial Anonymous said...

LOL, Dylan. Well, thanks for sharing!

After years of seeing frighteningly horrible and absolutely sincere submissions in slush, I've stopped assuming there's any irony in the things I get from strangers!

Anonymous said...

Tintin-- Ah, so they have not been edited, they're still racist, and nobody's complaining.

/bangs head against wall

And they still take up whole shelves at Barnes and Noble.

It would be awfully nice if some of the old classics with their old classic, er, "values" could ease over and make room for our books. If people came in and wanted the Little House books they could special order 'em.

Mark Herr said...

I have a ten year old daughter who loves the Little House books, but I think it also helps that she has seen the long running television series on dvd. I think a big part of why these books still hold up in popularity is the generation of moms who grew up on that show and are spreading that love to their girls.

Jill said...

Ha!! I love the car analogy - how very true!

As for "my book is very much like XYZ classic of yore..." I doubt it. Find your own voice or at least find a better way of pitching your work rather than trying to ride on someone else's coattails.

Cheers, Jill

MitMoi said...

I dunno. What do our child learn if all "racist" commentary is removed?

If it is there, it can be discussed. How we're (hopefully) not like that anymore. How it marginalizes people - makes them generic and discounts their contributions to our country.

But if it's erased and "cleaned up" then those discussions can't be had - and you end up with a generation saying, "That doesn't happen anymore" - and they are WRONG. Or even worse, not believing it ever happened to begin with.

/non-parent comment

Dorothy said...

Thanks for this post, EA. I read Little House in the Big Wood for my SCBWI book club had the same reaction to the lack of plot, but thought it might just be my adult expectations.


Dorothy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly books like Ramona and Fudge never really had plots either. They just had scenes - Romona in her costume for some play, Romana's mom getting a job. They seemed to not have any real point or pressing structure. At least not the same type of structure that we see in current books.

Little House and the rest sell because they are stocked to the nth degree, taking up entire shelves of my local indies and big chain stores. If other books were stocked this way -- instead of being given a whopping two months on a shelf before they are whisked away for reamainder bins -- I betcha they'd sell too.

Eilonwy said...

Yes, the Little House books are racist. Editing would not help. It would make them worse. The American westward expansion movement was only possible (like Southern plantation culture) because of racism. If we represent these eras sanitized of racism, we twice dishonor the Native and African American peoples who died as part of these processes.

Lots of people make the reasonable decision not to read books that treat genocide and slavery as entertainment, even if it is only tangential to the plot, as it is in Wilder's books. Other people choose to read them as windows both into the country that we were and as warnings as to what we do not want to repeat.

Censoring, banning, or editing out the racism of historical texts is the wrong way to go, though. The fact that Ma and Pa are largely sympathetic characters--and still racist--is important. Racism is easy to dismiss if we let kids think that only villainous characters slinking through the shadows and cackling evilly in darkened corridors ever participate in it. Racism is so insidious because "nice" people can be racist too.

I'd no more edit the Little House books than I'd edit the 3/5ths Compromise out of our list of Constitutional amendments. We need to know about these errors. Kids need to know about them as they grow up.

Josiah said...

I think it's a little odd to say that if a writer is inspired by Lewis Carroll or C.S. Lewis, then that writer is derivative & unoriginal, but if a writer says, "My book is like the O.C. combined with Death Note, plus a dash of steam-punk" then that's cool, because it's high-concept.

It's just my opinion, obviously, but I feel like that's a weird system of values.

Josiah said...


That was possibly the most thoughtful blog-comment I've ever read.

Emily Blackapple said...

Jill Edmondson said...

"As for "my book is very much like XYZ classic of yore..." I doubt it. Find your own voice or at least find a better way of pitching your work rather than trying to ride on someone else's coattails."

Josiah said...

"I think it's a little odd to say that if a writer is inspired by Lewis Carroll or C.S. Lewis, then that writer is derivative & unoriginal, but if a writer says, "My book is like the O.C. combined with Death Note, plus a dash of steam-punk" then that's cool, because it's high-concept."

I agree. Criticizing authors for comparing their sensibility or subject to that of a "classic" author is a bit hard to take from the same folks that celebrate the current vogue of riding the coat-tails of "high concept" genre trends (zombies! no, vampires!) or "fusion pitches" (ie: Sex & the City meets Nancy Drew).

The latter might show business acumen in the current publishing climate, but as far as an indicator of quality or substance or authorial voice, it's laughable to say one is ridiculous while the other is perfectly sensible - laudable, even.

I don't fault EA for being sick to death of difficult-to-impossible submissions that bank on old timey or out-dated qualities too heavily to the exclusion of, um, marketable appeal.

But I do question those so quick treat "classic" as a dirty word, and declare that older books only sell because of lofty nostalgia. Surely no one would make these same claims about "grown-up books". I'll eat my hat the day I see someone demand that Evelyn Waugh or PG Wodehouse relinquish their shelf space in Barnes & Noble so David Sedaris can take his rightful place as a timely, relevant, worthy humorist.

There is a place for everything...high, low, new, old.
For children.
For grown-ups.
I say this as someone who spent the summer between 3rd and 4th grade lost in both Little Women and The Babysitter's Club -and I loved them both.

Becky Mushko said...

I agree with Mark's comment; if the TV series hadn't run for so long, interest in the Little House books would likely have waned. I'm guessing that most current readers saw the TV series first and then read the books because they were already fans.

As for lack of plot, if I remember correctly, these books were written as memoir, albeit slightly fictionalized. And it was Laura's daughter Rose, who had some publishing connections, that encouraged Laura to get them published.

Anonymous said...

Ditto what Eilonwy said.

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying the Little House books should be censored. I'm saying they should stop being lauded, adored, admired, and allowed to

*take up 3/4 of the teeny-tiny space devoted to juvenile historical fiction at B&N*

And yes, we'd like to think children and other people can process, discuss and deconstruct such statements as "Ma hated Indians." But I don't think that's what's happening, because except on this thread of children's-literature-oriented people, when I say the books are racist people always act real surprised.

Deirdre Mundy said...

The New Yorker Article from August on how Rose heavily edited the Little House Books:

I think one reason the Little House books still sell is that they're really more memoir/biography than fiction, however much the events of Laura's life have been fictionalized. My girls (5 and 3) LOVE them because:

1. Garth Williams illustrated them. I mean, come ON. Good illustrations make up for an episodic format.

2. They're fascinated by the fact that these people really existed and that they LIVED like that (making their own everything, being buried in blizzards, etc....)

3. The characters and setting are so compelling that they make up for a lack of a plot. (Ramona and the Betsy-Tacy books are the same way.)

BUT..... my kids ALSO love books with great plots. And they wouldn't want to read ONLY episodic novels-- actually, I think the main reason they like them so much now is we do read aloud, and one chapter is basically one story-- so they're OK with waiting until the next day to hear the next chapter. With less episodic books, we get more whining when reading time is over!

Also, remember-- publishers don't need to publish more books like "insert classic here" because WE'RE STILL READING THE CLASSICS! There were lots of episodic books that have disappeared into oblivian. The great ones lived on, the mediocre ones are gone.

So, it's not enough for you to write a pretty good book in the vein of Anne of Green Gables-- you'd have to TOP Anne.

I think the little house books still have a place. When we get to the 'bad indians' chapter, we'll have to balance it with some more info on the indians from other viewpoints.

But they're a great jumping off point for thinking about history, and the kids LOVE playing pioneers...

And, Garth Williams rocks! ;)

Tricia Springstubb said...

My daughter enjoyed the first Little House book, but by the time we got to the second one, she said, "This is instructions, not a story" and that was the end of that.

Anonymous said...

Ya know, people do fear things they don't understand. And they sometimes say, "I hate such and such, when what they are actually feeling is fear."

Ma knew good and well that where they were living was dangerous and one of the dangers was being killed, having their house burned (can you burn a sod house? Maybe their later wood frame house.), and the children carried off by -- who? The Native Americans, that's who. Who were called by the name of 'Indians' in that time period.

Her fears were real. These things did happen.
Not racist -- but very real in that time period.

It was a clash of cultures -- a culture of farmers and settlers seeing empty land v. a warrior/ nomadic culture. The nomadic culture not understanding that the settlers thought they had purchased the land from the nomads.

(Do you fear being in certain parts of large cities? Your fears are very real today and there are facts about beatings and murders that take place there to back them up. It's not racist to be careful there. Did you think I was talking about a black area of the city? Surprise, there are very scary white/ German/ Asian/ Hispanic areas of the city, too.)

My family and I say that we hate going in or through these areas, and that we hate the criminals who do the robbing and killing. Racist? I don't think so.

And don't get me started on the evolution of what has been considered polite and proper to call darker-skinned neighbors, only to be condemed as 'racist' by the next generation or two and a new word coined. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s and so on, the name for people of color changed every few years, making it very difficult for writers to keep up with it. And to be even more confusing, many people of color still call themselves 'black.' Which puzzles my granddaughter, because she says her friends are brown, not black.

So Ma refers to others as 'darkies.'
Eilonwy says it best in the above post. This is a true picture of the way the country was. And Ma is true to her character.

Do we have to whitewash the past to get published these days, just to be PC?

(to paraphrase), If we don't remember the past -- as it was -- we are doomed to repeat it.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Tricia-- See, the instructions are what my kids LIKE about them. (Sort of like Robinson Crusoe.) It's the idea that THEY could go into the wilderness and build useful things too......

sbjames said...

The LIttle House books ARE NOT FICTION- they're memoir. The plot is her life as an American pioneer. Yes, that includes racism. Its an honest portrayal of her time,but at the end of Little House on the Prairie you find both Laura and Pa sympathetic to the plight of the Indian. That's what I remembered as a child. The sense of sadness that the Native American culture was being swept away. Also Laura begging her father not to shoot the wolves on Silver Lake. There's a lot more to the story than the few scenes of racism.

Marissa Doyle said...

I think the "plotlessness" of the first Little House books works well, actually--they're life as remembered by a small child, which will have more of a vignette-ish quality than a more connected, narrative feel. And the details of LIW's daily life will either appeal, or they won't...I delighted in them as a 4th grader, but I know others didn't. And that's okay--there's no such thing as a universally loved book anyway.

RA said...

Whoah, Deirdre!

1) You're reading Little House books aloud to a 3 year old? Are you reading the original versions or the watered-down knock-offs that Harper was issuing in great numbers several years ago?

2) If you're waiting to get to the part with negative images of Indians, you must have skipped the first page of the first book in the series.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Original Little House-- the 5 year old is more interested than the 3, but the 3 year old loves all the descriptions of how the girls played and did chores. And the pictures..... in my defense, she IS nearly 4!

You know, it's been a few months since we read 'Big woods'-- I wasn't looking for anti-indian language at the time, so, honestly, I might have missed it.

For a multi-cultural pioneer book (for younger kids) my daughters love 'Wagon Wheels' by Barbara Brenner. They especially love how the boys end up walking all the way to their dad's new homestead WITHOUT A GROWNUP! The indians in Wagon Wheels are also good-- they save the settlers during a bad winter by bringing food and firewood.

(BTW-- kind of suprised you're suprised that I'm reading Little House books to a pre-schooler--like I said, they have great pictures. My friends all think my kids are terribly immature because they won't sit still for The Hobbit yet..... ;) )

Vacuum Queen said...

It's funny, when my son was in 1st grade he was a great reader but I couldn't find challenging books at a 6 year old's maturity level...point being, I turned to my childhood favorite, Henry Huggins and the series. I remembered it being funny and challenging to read and a favorite.

Yes, it has lots of words to read, most of which are young at heart and avoid controversy, but sheesh! You're right about some of the classics. Not much there as far as plotlines. My classic turned out to be a snooze fest. Darn. I remember loving it. My son...not so much.

Apparently he was already looking for plotlines. Who knew?

Khanh Ha said...

If you take the so-called classics like "Crime and Punishment", "All the King's Men", or lesser ones like "The Painted Veil", "The Naked and the Dead", and submit them to our beloved publishers today, I bet you a dime they all get dissed for their boring narrative, heavy interior monologue, more telling than showing, etc.

And I don't think their writing is better than writing of modern authors. No way!

Marissa Doyle said...

Vacuum Queen, i wonder if it wasn't so much the lack of an overarching plot as the fact that Henry Huggins is so far away from today, but not far away enough (like the Little House books) to seem exotic.

Ms Baroque said...

RA - Whoa! Rather prescriptive, what?

Actually, Laura Ingalls wilder wrote her books FOR children, so the language is QUITE EASY. If you think normal conversational English is too hard to use with 3-year-old I'd say poor 3-year-old.

My kids' dad read them Treasure Island at 4 & 5. Funnily enough, although the language there IS difficult, because he read it with understanding, intonation and liveliness, they understood it, and loved the book - of which they heard the whole thing.

My first-grade teacher - admittedly this was in the late 60s, before people decided kids weren't really capable of much - read us The Call of the Wild, and I can remember going home and rhapsodising to my mother about it.

And re what other people have said about the Little House Books. Episodic = suitable for kids. (This used to be understood as a feature of kids' books, and made them good for bedtime stories.) They may not have a suspenseful plot, but they have a structure: Little House in the Bog Woods, for example, if I recall, is structured around a year in the life. I read it on my own when I was six, and LOVED it.

They're not "racist" per se: they're accurate, honest, truthful, descriptive. Laura is quite clear that she and her Pa do not agree with Ma's view. Ma is the one who hankers for "back east" and has less spirit of adventure generally. I can remember having those conversations with my mother as a child, anyway, and let's face it: kids do have to learn what the world is actually like. Not just what we wish it were like. I learned a hell of a lot from those books.

How hypocritical are we? We LIVE in these places, that were opened up by the pioneers, and we want to not tell kids the truth about how they were opened up?? We only tell them about people who are just like we think people should be? Hmm. Shame.

Also, in an era when we deride the TV, internet, computer games, Wii, we worry the kids are spoiled, we lament the fact that they aren't even allowed to play outside any more - these old children's stories at least carry on the good old message about personal responsibility, about kids having to do chores, about self-sufficiency, about not being obsessed with shopping - though in the later books it is very sweet when Laura starts hankering after things like calling cards... about there being values in life beyond shiny-happy-consumerist. Believe it or not, that comes as a huge relief to some kids. It's very balancing, as a child, to learn that in previous ages, and in other places, children actually were and are regarded as able to take some responsibility. My kids also had Children of the New Forest, about a family of parentless children living in hiding in the woods during the English Civil War in the 17th century. Full of excitement.

They're normal kids, too. Teenagers now.

In short: the reason the Little House books still sell is surely because KIDS LOVE THEM. (Not all kids. I can't think of anything EVERYBODY loves, can you? I even know people who hate tea.)

JEM said...

The Rejectionist had a great blog article recently on the power of sentimentality to blind you to the true quality of a piece of work, and this post just reiterates that for me. I'm not dogging on Winnie the Pooh or anything, but if we all remembered how much of a Debbie Downer Eeyore really was, would we read about him to our children? Methinks not.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Oh, I totally read eyore to my kids and paly up the annoying depressed aspect! We deal with people like that all the time... Eeyore gives the kids a way to cope... so they understand that it's NOT anything they did--some people are just never happy.....

Seriously---reading and stories help INTRODUCE kids to some of the more difficult aspects of the world in a safe, fun way. That way they have coping skills in place for when Cousin Agatha mopes around even after the kids have done their best to be sweet and helpful.

Fairy tales and classic books give kids the language they need to talk about problems. Kids are going to encounter depressed people, racism, etc. If they've encountered them in stories first, they have a framework to cope.

Also, because classics are part of a shared cultural heritage, it helps generations communicate with each other. If you talk about laura Ingalls Wilder, then 4 generations (great grandma, Grandma, Mom and daughter) can all communicate based on the shared experience of 'Little House in the Big Woods."

As much as I love Clementine, grandma and great grandma don't know her.... But if my daughter talks about how something is just like an event from Laura's life, we can have an intergenerational discussion!

(Likewise, if I meet a frenchman, chances are we can both talk about Raskolnikov. Shared culture is IMPORTANT. This is an argument for EXPANDING the Canon to include works from other times/cultures, but not for kicking out the stuff that's already there!)

Wendie O said...

Jem, Eeyore is funny! especially if you read his part in a very morbid voice -- deep and long and drawn out. Definitely a Debbie Downer (love that term) in contrast to the ever-lovin Pooh.

A lot of Winnie the Pooh is funny, if you read it to children at the right age and the right age is first grade and up. (5, 6, 7 years old) The kids giggle and giggle. (I dare you not to giggle yourself when you read those looooong chapter titles out loud.)

If you read it to preschoolers -- they like the story, but you don't get those hysterical giggles.

Oh, WtP is also episodic, but I'd like to think that it would still be able to be published today. Hmm, has anyone seen an ARC of the new sequel to WtP? Is it episodic, too? And is it as child-like and funny?

(Have we gone too far off topic, EA?)

librariankris said...

Wow...I'm impressed by the comments of EA's readership as usual.

Just a couple of things to add to the discussion:

1) In my experience, a lot of kids prefer Little House on the Prairie to Big Woods because it does have a little more excitement to it, but it is hard to generalize what "every" or "most" kids want. Not everyone is a classics reader but that doesn't mean they don't get read.

2) I read the Little House books when I was 5 years old because I myself was a voracious reader who couldn't find stuff that was interesting but challenging enough. I remember loving Big Woods at that age because Laura was close to my age. Classics make *great* choices for kids who are advanced readers but aren't yet ready for some of the content of "older" books.

3) There are books that kids love to love on their own and then there are books that are usually "hand-sold" to them by adults. Some examples: Charlotte's Web, Ginger Pye, Little House, the Daniel Pinkwater books, etc. I personally think that the "hand-sold" books play a different role in kids' lives than the more trendy titles (not better, not worse, just different).

4) Does anyone else find it ironic that the first comment was about a Banned Books Week blog and then we spent a lot of time wondering if we should censor the Little House books? Are we going to censor Peter Pan, too?

none said...

At one point the Ingalls family are definitely *not* on land they as settlers think the natives have sold, because they move in anticipating that stretch of 'Indian Territory' will be opened up, and, when it isn't, then have to leave.

There is racism in the books, for sure. Good way to start a discussion.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading all of the Little House books to my kids (now 10 and almost 8) over the course of a year -- and I mainly started because my 9-year-old balked at the dorkiness of the covers and would not read them on her own. But these books were made for reading aloud -- they are full of the stuff of life and the way things were made back then. You realize how little "making" of daily items is going on in our lives today. For that reason they are fascinating to kids.

They also provide great teaching moments re: the treatment of Indians and black people in history. I was also shocked to find a pretty anti-Semitic illustration toward the end of FARMER BOY -- another great teaching moment. I'd hate to see that censored. These are books of their time.

Also -- they are fiction based in Laura's life, not strictly memoir.

Jill said...

The Little House books are racist b/c that was the mindset at the time. 100 years from now, will we want readers judging us b/c our current beliefs don't match up with theirs? P.S. Racism still exists, heavily. Expunging it from literature is shirking from reality.

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