Dialogue in Children’s and Young Adult Books

Many readers look for dialogue in the books they read. This is no different for children. Dialogue adds tension, information, and moves a story along in helpful ways. But when is dialogue too much?
I teach J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit every year. Invariably, a student will tell me the book wasn’t for them. This is a polite way of telling me they didn’t like it. When I ask why, the student will often say, “There’s just too much description.”
On one hand, I can appreciate that someone might find Tolkien’s pacing slow. The book has long passages of description, and Bilbo’s journey takes time. On the other hand, the same student who doesn’t like The Hobbit will like Gary Paulson’s Hatchet. Hatchet is a survival story, which means Brian, the main character, is stuck on a lake in Northern Ontario for fifty-four days—by himself. As you can imagine, the book has hardly any dialogue. So what’s the difference?
In this case, I think it’s a matter of taste rather than criticism. However, when is dialogue a bad thing in a children’s book? I’m reading Brandon Mull’s Beyonders series, based on the fantasy kingdom of Lyrian. I was part way through the second book, Seeds of Rebellion, when my mind started wandering. I realized that Mull’s large cast of characters was talking too much. In the second book, many of these characters come together on a journey—then they start talking. The dialogue goes on and on. The characters are busy organizing a rebellion against Maldor, the evil emperor, but the endless talk of who’s who and how they plan to defeat the emperor gets tedious. It’s like reading a script—the dialogue provides information, but the tension evaporates. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of Brandon Mull. His Fablehaven series is excellent, and it remains my favourite.
Thinking about dialogue in kid’s books raises some important questions for me. For one, when I think about the inner life of a child, I remember a rich world of feeling that I had to work hard to articulate. I’m sure this isn’t true for many kids, but kids still have to learn how to close the gap between feeling and verbalizing. Language acquisition doesn’t happen at the same rate for every child. If an author fails to recognize that language acquisition imposes certain limitations on character, then they aren’t doing justice to a child’s experience. If the point of the dialogue is just to get across information, then you might as well skip the dialogue and—or some of it—and offer a concise explanation.
This is an exercise in balance. Return to Tolkien for a moment. Here’s a passage from The Hobbit that both uses description and dialogue to its best affect:

One morning they forded a river at a wide shallow place full of the noise of stones and foam. The far bank was steep and slippery. When they got to the top of it, leading their ponies, they saw that the great mountains had marched down very near to them. Already they seemed only a day’s easy journey from the feet of the nearest. Dark and drear it looked, though there were patches of sunlight on its brown sides, and behind its shoulders the tips of snowpeaks gleamed.
”Is that The Mountain?” asked Bilbo in a solemn voice, looking at it with round eyes. He had never seen a thing that looked so big before.
”Of course not!” said Balin. ”That is only the beginning of the Misty Mountains, and we have got to get through, or over, or under those somehow, before we can come into Wilderland beyond. And it is a deal of a way even from the other side of them to the Lonely Mountain in the East where Smaug lies on our treasure.”
”O!” said Bilbo, and just at that moment he felt more tired than he ever remembered feeling before. He was thinking once again of his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit-hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!
(J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”)

Tolkien creates a balance between the interior state of the character and dialogue. Both provide information, and the tension comes out of Bilbo’s tiredness in relation to Balin’s comment that the world is much bigger than the hobbit imagines.
An Internet search will tell you it’s important to use dialogue in kid’s books. Good advice. But dialogue is effective for any kind of writing. And most kids know when they are being condescended to. That includes the over use of dialogue. Kids can be discerning readers, just like adults, which to my mind is always the best place to begin—remembering that kids are readers, who know what they like, and who aren’t afraid to close a book once they’ve had enough.

Freedom to Read, Freedom to Think

In 1999, my kids wanted to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Their friends were reading the books, but their mom, and other parents I knew, had concerns about the series. As parents, we agreed I would read the first book and let her know what I thought.
My kids and I had just moved into our new house, and I spent a rainy week in July reading the audio book, performed by Jim Dale. My youngest walked into my room to hear the line,
“Urgh – troll boogers.”
“What are you reading?” she asked, with some surprise.
My kids started reading Harry Potter later that summer. We talked about the books, what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what bothered them.
Over the years, I’ve made it a practice to read what my kids are reading. Not everything, but even if I didn’t have time, or if I couldn’t get a digital copy of the book, we talked about what they were reading. And being able to talk about books meant we could talk about other things—music, movies, or pop culture.
This week is Freedom to Read Week. Reading with kids and talking about books can be the most effective ways to help a new generation become more aware and more clear-thinking adults. And reading together is simply one of the best ways to spend time with kids—I say that as both a parent and a storyteller.
Western culture has a long history of adults trying to control what kids read, going back farther than the eighteenth century. At that time, adults wanted kids to read books that were uplifting, instilled a fear of God, or taught lessons in honesty and working hard. One of the most shocking books ever written for children is James Janeway’s A Token for Children, which featured stories of child martyrs, all dying in the knowledge that their faith in God is secure. But children have always been drawn to those books adults don’t want them to read—both then and now.
If you want to read more about Freedom to Read Week, check out their website. Have a look at this list of challenged books in Canada from the Edmonton Public Library’s website—a list that contains some of my favourite books. And listen to this story from the CBC archives about the challenge to Margaret Laurence’s books in 1985.
The battle over books has gone on for centuries. But it’s not just about books; it’s about ideas and the freedom to think critically. Kids are curious; they want to read, and they want to talk about what they read. Unfortunately, the challenge to most books emerges out of fear—fear of what we dislike, fear of what we see as different, fear of what doesn’t reflect our own beliefs. Much is gained from maintaining a dialogue with children and young adults about what they think—they’re pretty awesome. And they are, after all, those who will inherit the Earth.

What! No Women in The Hobbit?


My sister recently sent me a link to a talk by Patrick Rothfuss, the author of The King Killer Chronicle. He was speaking at a book event, and he commented on the need to halt the perpetuation of sexism in fantasy, and particularly on the conspicuous lack of women in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. You can watch his comments here:
Rothfuss is correct in suggesting fantasy as a genre has perpetuated female stereotypes. He’s also right about The Hobbit: the book lacks any active female characters. Belladonna Took—Bilbo’s mother—is the only named female character, while Kili and Fili’s mother only gets a mention, and the generic women of Lake-Town huddle with their children after the attack of the dragon.
I agree with Rothfuss’ point about fantasy, but I thought it a little odd that he offers his comments about Tolkien as though he’s revealing a well-kept secret. It’s possible that some people might have been misled by Peter Jackson’s introduction of two major female characters in his Hobbit trilogy, in which Galadriel, already familiar to fans of Lord of the Rings as the Elven Queen, proves herself a forbidding member of the White Council, and Tauriel, a feisty Elven warrior, has a smoldering attachment to Kili the dwarf. Given this pseudo-romance between an elf and a dwarf, perhaps it’s Peter Jackson we need to forgive, not Tolkien. Such a liaison would never, never—and I can’t stress this enough—never happen in Tolkien’s universe.
I’ve read Tolkien’s The Hobbit more times than I can count, and I’ve taught the book for well over a decade. I don’t remember when I first realized the book lacked any female characters. Maybe I always knew; it just took awhile to register.
However, it’s a point that gets made every time I teach the book—if not by me, then by a student, usually with a knowing shake of the head. My children’s literature courses are generally populated by female students, so I do feel I owe them an explanation, at least.
Tolkien, I tell them, was never a modern, neither as a writer nor as a man. He was a medieval at heart. He was also a medievalist, but that was his job. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, but I don’t think he ever truly entered the twentieth century. He hated the industrial transformation of the English landscape, and as an Oxford professor and philologist, he spoke openly against the modernist movement in literature. His definition of English literature, in fact, didn’t extend much beyond Chaucer. He was a devoted father and husband, something which sometimes baffled his friend C. S. Lewis, the nearly lifetime bachelor, Christian apologist, and author of the Narniad.
I don’t think Tolkien necessarily wrote to exclude women from his books, but I think he inherited an understanding of and an attitude towards women that came from an earlier time. His legendarium shows it. At the same time, Tolkien’s body of work includes important female characters, not the least of which is Luthien, the elf maiden  of the Tale of Beren and Luthien, who falls in love with Beren, and together they cut a silmaril, a precious  Elven gem, from the iron crown of Morgoth—the dark lord of Middle-Earth’s first age. Such women play a crucial role in Tolkien’s mythology, and patriarchal constructions of women aside, it’s still a woman, Eowyn, in Lord of the Rings,who kills the chief of the Nazgul by driving a sword into his face.
And yet, why are there no women in The Hobbit? I never have an entirely satisfactory answer. There just isn’t one.
Having said that, I always emphasize the role of Bilbo’s mother in his development as a burglar and adventurer whenever I teach the book. Bilbo’s yearning for adventure comes from his mother’s side, while his longing for food, fire, and a comfortable armchair comes from his father’s.
One of my favourite passages early in the book is Bilbo’s first recognition of this Tookish nature, just after the dwarves sing their song for the first time:
Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up – probably somebody lighting a wood-fire – and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again. (Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. New York: Harper Collins, 1999. 16.)
Tolkien may not have given us any women in The Hobbit, but he gave the twentieth century a new way of understanding fantasy, first with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937, and second with the delivery of his essay “On Faerie Stories.” Writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Robin McKinley, and J. K. Rowling—just to name three—took  that genre and populated it with female characters that Tolkien never could. Was Tolkien a sexist? I don’t think so. Would he have recognized the Oxford of the 1940s and 50s as a bastion of institutionalized sexism? I doubt it. Did he write to exclude women? I think he wrote an idea of women into his mythology that grew out of his understanding of medieval and chivalric romance. And to be fair, he wrote his male characters out of the same tradition. They are noble, strong, and sometimes flawed, but the hobbits are those characters who are most human and literally closest to the earth.
To bring it back to Patrick Rothfuss’ comments, does fantasy as a genre perpetuate gender stereotypes? It does—at least some of it does. I tend not to read such fantasy if I can help it. But I don’t think it’s a problem with the genre. I can think of any number of strong female characters I’ve encountered in my reading: Tenar from Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, Alana from Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet, Rowen from Thomas Wharton’s’ Perilous Realm series, Sonea from Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician series, and Katniss from Suzanne Collins The Hunger Gamesseries.
Do I wish that Tolkien had done something different? Not really. I recognize his portrayal of women for what it is, but I don’t hold it against him. Without him, I would have never discovered the power of fantasy in the first place, or come to love the genre and to follow it in all its multitudinous forms. By the way, I learned that word from Tolkien.

Into the Woods: Disney in Name Only


Disney has made enough money from its filmic versions of fairy tales in the last seventy-five years to make Smoug’s treasure look like a piggy-bank. Since the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney has been feeding us feature-length versions of fairy tales—and they’re still doing it.
I went to see Into the Woods, and I was a little surprised Disney decided to put its name to this project. Not that it isn’t a film worth seeing. Disney’s Into the Woods is a live-action musical, based on the musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim. If you like musicals, and if you like folktales, you will probably like this film. My favourite characters were the Witch, played by Meryl Streep, and Cinderella, played by Anna Kendrick. The film has some fabulous moments, including Cinderella stuck to the palace steps as she sings out her indecision, and Agony, the duets sung by the two insufferable princes, played by Chris Pine (Yes, indeed, the latest Captain Kirk.)And Billy Magnussen. However, you will have to see the film and judge for yourself.
What surprised me was some of the darker elements from the Grimms’ folktales that find their way into the film. One note. Jack and the Beanstalk is not a Grimms’ tale; it’s English. The film makes use of Grimms’ versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Red riding Hood in order to tell the story of Mr. and Mrs. Baker who attempt to break a curse on the male line of the family.
Anyone familiar with Disney is aware of how the corporation tends to sexualize its princesses—all you need do is rewatch The Little Mermaid. But this film takes things to a different level—namely, when Red Riding Hood makes her way to Granny’s house. Little Red, played here by Lilla Crawford, meets the wolf, played slaveringly by Johnny Depp. Red offers the wolf a self-possessed, “Hello Mr. Wolf,” and then endures his fawning and slavering before carrying on to Granny’s. The scene is disturbing in its overtones, and the sexual nature of the wolf’s interest smacks more of Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood than it does Grimms’ Little Red Cap.
The Grimm Brothers show Red Cap as a child, and she’s clearly a child in the film, which makes the wolf’s appetite that much more disturbing. Red learns her lesson, as she is saved from the wolf’s belly by the woodcutter, but her song about being “excited and scared” puts a different spin on Red’s experience.
I was also struck by the use of the Grimms’ Cinderella in the film. This is not the version of Cinderella with which most people are familiar. In Grimm, the stepsisters cut off first a toe and then a heel in order to fit a foot in the slipper. In the film, the stepmother obliges each of her daughters by thwacking off first a toe and then a heel in the hopes one might marry the prince. Cinderella’s helper birds arrive not long after to blind the stepsisters for their cruelty. These details are one thing to read in Grimm, but they are something else to see on the screen. The stepsisters later show up wearing dark glasses and carrying canes, which suggests some black humour that’s a far cry from the folktale.
Remember, I liked this film. Parts of it were a little hard to take, but the music carries the two hours, despite the weird restart of the plot once the giant’s wife shows up to find and kill Jack, who is, of course, responsible for her husband’s death. Disney’s retellings of such fairy tales are often dark, sometimes sexual, and always follow a formula. Into the Woods is not a Disney production, but it does carry Disney’s name, which says something about the corporation and where it’s prepared to put its money.

The New Hobbit Film, My Reluctant Anticipation



Alert! No Spoilers
Peter Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies is due to open soon, and I’m looking forward to it with reluctant anticipation. It promises to be a digital blood-bath. Having split his filmic rendering of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into three parts, this latest film will focus largely on the battle at the Lonely Mountain.
Mind, no spoilers, but I don’t think it’s difficult to guess what Jackson will do with this film. First, expect this movie to be mostly about the battle at the Lonely Mountain, with extended slow-motion shots featuring individual fights—not to mention the swelling orchestral score in the background. I’m guessing we will have a face-off between Thorin and Azog (a plot twist I never liked).
Second, and this isn’t a spoiler if you’ve read the book, the dragon also has to die, and this will be most spectacular. The death of the dragon in the book is one of my favourite scenes. It’s useful here to point out that the slaying of Smoug is where Tolkien’s narrative leaves Bilbo and company behind at the mountain, while it follows the dragon to Lake-Town, where he is slain by Bard the Bowman. It’s an important scene for several reasons. It’s a dragon slaying, for one—an individual, heroic moment that is signature Tolkien. But it’s also a major narrative shift in the book. Much more is happening in Tolkien’s world than Bilbo is aware. The narrative has to break away from Bilbo’s perspective in order to show the larger scope of the heroic world, and the positioning of its various peoples in response to the attack and death of the monster. I’m a purist, so I’m not going to call Tolkine’s world of The Hobbit Middle-Earth: Tolkien doesn’t introduce the term Middle-Earth until The Fellowship of the Ring. And by the way, other names, such as The Shire, don’t appear until the later book either.
My point is that Tolkien’s world of The Hobbit has more scope than simply Bilbo’s seemingly ill-fated journey with the dwarves. Think about it. Thirteen dwarves and one hobbit set out on an epic adventure to recover treasure from a live dragon. This is a journey that hasn’t much hope of success, and most of the book focuses on Bilbo’s experience of the journey. He knows little about the world in which he finds himself, and even Thorin considers the treasure  his, and doesn’t think about any of the other people injured by the dragon, or who might be interested in the treasure once the dragon is dead. After the dragon leaves the mountain for Lake-Town, the book expands in scope to include most of Tolkien’s northern world—the men of Lake-Town, the Elves of Mirkwood, Dain and the dwarves of the Iron Hills, the eagles of the Misty Mountains, and Bolg of the North and his goblin army.
Back to Jackson’s film. Another stray thread from his second film is the attraction between Kili the dwarf and Tauriel the Wood-elf. Not looking forward to this one at all. As I said, I’m a purist when it comes to Tolkien, and I think setting up a love story between a dwarf and an elf is ridiculous—not to put too fine a point on it. Ask Tolkien whether or not a dwarf and an elf could ever get together in his world. He might chuckle, and he might look at you with incredulity, but he would most certainly launch into an historical explanation of relations between the two peoples throughout his legendarium. And before you point it out, Galadriel and Gimli don’t count. Gimli’s adoration for the Elven queen was an aboration—and it was an elevated, platonic, and one-sided love on Gimmly’s part. You might think that pairing was ridiculous. You are free to think so. Gimli’s love was lofty and chivalric—however unpalatable it might seem—while Kili’s attraction to Tauriel is reciprocal and suggests something more lusty and physical.
I will go see the film—probably more than once—and I will spend time processing whatever Peter Jackson does with the story. Its entertainment, and I have to see it as entertainment; otherwise, I get too bothered by what Jackson is doing to one of my favourite books. And I want to go on liking the films.
One final comment. Jackson chose to separate his adaptation into three parts, the last of which focuses on the battle. Read the book. We don’t get much of the Battle of Five Armies (not the Battle of the Five Armies) in Tolkien’s text, and Bilbo is actually knocked unconscious by a falling rock early on, and he hears about the details from Gandalf after all is over. Tolkien writes in the heroic tradition, which you can see in his representation of battles throughout The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But he didn’t romanticize war, and he always commented on its brutality and its accompanying loss and sorrow. Pay attention Peter Jackson. Your need to indulge your propensity for epic battles comes at a cost. You are missing Tolkien’s profound understanding of war and warfare: an understanding grounded in the heroic tradition, but tempered by his World War I experience in which he lost three of his closest friends.
I’ll leave you with this comment from the Elvenking, before the battle is ever joined:
”Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold. The dwarves cannot pass us, unless we will, or do anything that we cannot mark. Let us hope still for something that will bring reconciliation. Our advantage in numbers will be enough, if in the end it must come to unhappy blows.” (Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit.  New York: Harper Colins, 1999. 358. Print.)

Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles, Fanfic or Christian Politics?


I first discovered fanfiction at a Harry Potter con in San Francisco. It was the first session of the conference, and I was curious. As I sat through the ninety-minute session, I realized I was experiencing a world of fandom I had no idea existed.
In some ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was a Harry Potter con. People were dressed in costume everywhere. I took a side door out of the hotel to get away from the craziness for a few minutes, and I met there two generic witches and a Severus Snape.
I’ve never identified myself with fandom of any kind, but I appreciate, I think, those who do. At least I understand the desire to engage imaginatively and creatively with a favourite book or author. It took me longer to understand fanfic. I read some posts, and thought, fine. People want to engage the world of Harry Potter in different ways. And again, it’s not something I’ve done, but I understand the desire to use writing as a means of personal expression.
Enter, Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles by Proudhousewife. This one has been popping up variously on the Internet the past couple of weeks, so I finally had a read. If you’re interested, I would encourage you to have a look as well.
Here’s a brief sample from Chapter 7, “Wheat and Chaff,” the sorting chapter: “The Great Hall burst into applause as a red and yellow baseball cap with a lion embroidered on the front appeared on Harry’s head. He hopped deftly off the table and landed on his little feet. He could feel the love of the Lord surging through him; and he knew he had made the right decision.”
In this fanfic, Harry Potter is a good little Christian who makes all of the right decisions. But what’s with the baseball cap? Proudhousewife’s fanfic isn’t just a Christian revision of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; it’s American. If you keep reading, you’ll find a reference to the first amendment in chapter 8. I’m not sure which bothered me more—the Christianity or the baseball caps.
At heart, fanfic strikes me as a means for fans to engage the books they love in a different way. I’ve read Harry Potter fanfics that show same-sex relationships between different characters from the books. Such an engagement is certainly political, as it places such relationships from the books into the context of choices around gender and gender identification.
Political is fine, but Proudhousewife crosses a line. For one, she isn’t a fan. This isn’t just her version of the Harry Potter story that she wrote to safeguard her “little ones.” She has a political agenda riding on the Harry Potter name. And I wouldn’t even call this fanfic. It’s self-serving, reductionist, and preachy. One cap, one Christianity, one lens through which to see the world.
Here’s another example: chapter 6: Sorting Hats! (The exclamation point is there I’m sure so you understand the importance of the sorting—and the fact these are hats, not a hat).
In this chapter, our brave little Christian soldier is meeting other little members of Hogwarts and discovering shocking things about the hats—again, hats, not houses.
Harry is sitting at a table with Ronald, presently unsorted, with countless other redheads wearing green and black baseball caps bearing snakes. Harry discovers to his horror that the Slytherins—yes, they are Slytherins—believe in God but also worship Mary: “the mommy of our Lord.” Harry then turns to a peace-loving, vegetarian Hufflepuff hat (a version of Luna), who says: “We don’t believe in the stuff against fornication and drinking and socialism; but we really like Matthew 7:1 (Matthew 7:1 – Judge not, that ye not be judged); and that’s about it.” And she’s not even eating real bacon: “it tasted like vegetables blended together and died red. Yuck! Harry would take real bacon over that any day of the week.”
These two brief encounters offer some pointed comments. Together, they condemn Catholics, middle-of-the-road Christians, vegetarians, drinkers, and socialists—not to mention fornicators. Harry is the blessed little Christian protagonist of the story, so I’m not sure how to read this any other way. I’m not touching Harry’s comments on the role of women, which he offers later in the chapter to Draco, who wears a Ravenclaw hat. You’ll have to read those for yourself.
When I was twenty, I met a Catholic priest who said to me: “We believe the Catholic religion is the right religion and the only religion.” I was young, not too bright, and lacked the wherewithal to offer an appropriate response. The message I’m getting from Proudhousewife is the same, except this time it’s in the guise of a Gryffindor baseball cap. She can write whatever she wants in order to safeguard her children, but I think I’ll stick to reading J. K. Rowling.