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.

World Read Aloud Day, 2018

A couple of years ago, I was stopped outside MacEwan by a young woman.
“Are you Mr. Thompson?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, thinking she must be a student.
“I was in your daughter’s class in elementary. You used to come in and tell us stories.”
I was touched that this young woman remembered those stories and thought to say hello, especially since elementary for my kids was more than a decade in the past.
My kids have always had an experience of books. Their mom started reading to them before they could talk. For my part, I tried ordering print-braille books so I could read to them as well, but books took ages to arrive by mail, which meant the whole thing was more frustrating than anything else.
I was lucky enough to have taken a children’s literature course with Jon Stott during my undergrad, so out of desperation, I pulled out my old textbook to see if I could find a story to tell my two-year-old. The first story I ever told her was “Kate Crackernuts.” She heard that story every night for three months, and I doubt she heard the ending until much later. But telling stories became part of the ritual at bedtime, which lasted for years.
Later on, when my kids started school, I went into their class and told stories—stories I found in books or on the Internet. The teacher had the idea to turn all those stories into a project. The kids drew pictures of their favourite stories, and my mom and another parent transferred those pictures onto fabric. The whole thing became the Storytelling Quilt.
Reading aloud to children is a powerful thing. Research suggests reading aloud helps both general literacy and reading acquisition. But consider –reading to your own kids means spending time with them, and spending such time goes a long way to actively showing your kids how much you care.
February 1 is World Read Aloud Day, sponsored by Scholastic. If you can, take the time to read aloud to a child in your life. And if you can’t manage it for February 1, remember that every day of the year offers such an opportunity.

100 and Still Posting

This entry marks the one hundredth post on my blog. It’s actually more than that, but I figured re-posting doesn’t count.
In the early summer of 2015, I had the idea for a blog on children’s literature. The teaching term was over, and I spent hours sitting at my kitchen table trying to figure out how to create a blog. Everything I read told me I needed to make it interesting, that I needed pictures, and that I had to find a niche.
I surfed the web for hours, looking at other blogs about kid’s books. Many of these were book review sites—interesting and informative, but not what I wanted to put my energy towards. I finally settled on a weird mix of commentary, personal reflection, and creative writing.
I was still faced with many questions:
1. How not to sound like a pompous ass,
2. How to write about things that interested me,
3. How to reach readers,
4. How to offer something original,
5. And how to make my blog both easy to read and appealing to the eye.
Of Other Worlds: A Children’s Literature Blog was born. My first entry was a personal account of discovering Tolkien at the age of eleven, after losing my sight in a car accident the summer before.
I quickly discovered that maintaining a blog was less easy than I thought. I tried writing something every week, but that was too hard. I tried writing about the books I loved, which worked better. I started writing and posting fractured fairy tales, which was fun, but again, hard to maintain. All of it was a learning experience—the writing, the site itself, and the hard-to-ignore, sometimes demoralizing conviction that nobody was even reading it.
Last summer, I created this author webpage, which meant that my blog was just now part of my site. Kid’s and young adult books are still a major part of my life and work, but the blog has expanded into something more. I’ve learned a great deal from creating and maintaining these sites, and I’ve gained a greater appreciation for anyone who reads what I write.
I’ll keep posting, and I hope people keep reading. You’ll still find stuff on kid’s and young adult books, but maybe you’ll occasionally find more to interest you. Either way, let me know.

October and Literacy

October has me thinking about literacy. In my job at the university, I talk to students about sentence construction, about nouns and noun phrases, about usage, idiom, parallelism, and all the grammatical stuff they will mostly forget once they leave my class. But visiting a junior high school earlier this month during Read IN Week reminded me how critical literacy is to the lives of young people. Literacy is more than just learning to read and write. It’s about understanding, self-expression, engagement, and taking part in the world in a fulsome way.
Each term, I teach classes in first-year academic writing. Almost the first thing I tell my students is that they aren’t in an English class: it’s a writing class. Of course it’s English, but I make the point about writing to derail their prejudices.
Many first-year students come to post-secondary with a misunderstanding about books and reading. For many, English class is boring, or hard, or tedious, or weird, and the professor’s opinion always counts more than theirs. In many ways, I can’t blame them. They’ve been told all throughout their school careers that books are important, and many books are better than others. Hamlet beats Harry Potter, and Pride and Prejudice beats Twilight. Perhaps so, but literacy is more than the literary equivalent of American Idle. It’s also more than having to read Lord of the Flies for grade twelve English, recognizing all the important bits, then writing an essay about the disintegration of society. Literacy involves communication in all its multitudinous forms. It includes Facebook and Twitter, texts and email; it’s about a person’s ability to function competently in a world that thrives on the dissemination of information, and her ability to sort this bloated, often self-reflexive mass of news bites, internet pages, and memes into something usable.
The kids I met earlier this month at Spruce Avenue School were all new comers to Canada. Literacy for these young people is less about popular culture than it is life. They are learning a new language in a new country. They have to learn to communicate with teachers, peers, and neighbours. I came in for part of the afternoon, and we talked about fairy tales. I told them the story of Red Riding Hood—my version of the story. They had read the story earlier in the year, and they were very appreciative. Storytelling can be one of the finest vehicles for literacy, as it puts the storyteller right in front of you. As the listener, you become part of the story, and sharing in such an experience mostly makes you want to explore more stories. Contributing in a small way to those young people’s growing experience of literacy was gratifying and encouraging—as much for me as it was for them. Hopefully, I can visit them again soon.

A conversation with Australia


This week, I had the good fortune to talk to a group of grade six students from Melbourne, Australia. We used FaceTime to talk, and they had lots of questions.
They learned a little about me beforehand. They knew I’m totally blind, and that I lost my sight in a car accident as a kid. They knew I teach at a university, and they knew I spend much of my time reading kid’s books.
This is a perceptive group of kids. Some of their questions surprised me.
Here are some of the questions, and my best approximation of the answers.
Q. How long did it take you to learn braille?
A. It took about three months. I was in the hospital for several months after my accident, and someone came in a couple of times a week to teach me.
Q. Do you use braille to read your books?
A. No. I always found braille hard to use. I read audio books, and I have a voice program on my computer called JAWS that I use to read anything electronic, such as student essays. I also read books on my IPhone and my IPad.
Q. What was it like in the hospital? Were people nice to you?
A. Yes, people were nice and generally helpful. It only got hard once I was out of the hospital and back at my old school. I went to a special class with other visually impaired kids after Christmas, but then I was back in my old school for grade seven the next fall. It was hard then because many of the other kids didn’t know how to treat me anymore. Kids can sometimes be mean to one another, so there was lots of teasing.
Q. What do you see, or do you see anything at all?
A. that’s a good question. Close your eyes, and tell me what you see.
— I see darkness but bits of colour and dots and things.
— That’s what I see, if I choose to pay attention.
Q. How do you understand beauty?
A. that’s another good question. I think of lots of things as beautiful. It’s fall here right now, and often at this time of the year we can have snow. But we’re having a warm October. I walk a lot, so when I’m out enjoying a walk, I think of the fall as beautiful.
Q. Do you have any hobbies?
A. Yes, I do pottery. I’ve been doing that for a couple of years. I make bowls and cups and other things. I also carve in soapstone. Carving soapstone takes longer, and I can only carve outside because it’s so messy, but I like to make birds and whales and other animals.
Q. what kind of music do you like?
A. Well, lots, I suppose. I listen to lots of folk music. Do you guys like U2? (a chorus of agreement). I like U2 as well.
Q. Do you have a favourite movie?
A. Not really. I like to watch movies. I like watching films that are adapted from books, like the Lord of the Rings movies or the Narnia films.
Q. What is your favourite book?
A. That’s a hard question. I don’t know if I can say that I have a favourite book. I have lots of favourite authors, like Tolkien and Lewis. I like reading series as well. One of my favourites in the last couple of years has been the Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud. I just finished a series by Brandon Mull called Fablehaven, and I’m reading another series by an Australian author called Trudi Canavan—The Black Magician Trilogy.
We talked like that for almost an hour, and they had many more questions. I was gratified to spend time with such an interested and perceptive bunch of kids from another part of the world. No doubt we could have found many other things that we shared if we’d had more time.  Unfortunately, their schedule wouldn’t allow for it. Perhaps one day we can talk again.