On Writing for Kids, or, Machine vs Snot-Monster


After I lost my sight in a car accident at age ten, I had an aunt who took it upon herself to record some books for me on tape. Two of those books were The Runaway Robot and a collection of short stories called Tomorrow’s Children. I must have read both a dozen times. I haven’t reread the runaway Robot since, but a couple of years ago I found a copy of Tomorrow’s Children: Eighteen Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The book is   a collection of stories about children of the future, but written by people who don’t normally write for kids. I didn’t know this about the book at the time, and it was only my years of reading and teaching that showed me ways this book was even more interesting than I had first thought. Reading the book as an eleven-year-old, of course I didn’t care.
I recently found a story that reminded me strongly of this collection: Machine vs Snot-Monster by Edmonton’s Thomas Wharton.
The story is dedicated to Ray Bradbury, which tells me something about both the story and the author. Machine vs Snot-Monster fits into this category of stories about kids that aren’t necessarily for kids. It’s about a boy who wants his caretaker to tell him a story. But the caretaker is a machine. It can only recombine elements of plot and character; it can’t create. At the end, the machine says to the little boy, “Tell me a story.”
Story lies at the heart of Wharton’s fiction, and he’s one of those authors who writes for both adults and kids. Some writers of adult fiction turn to writing kids’ books because, after all, writing books for kids is easier than writing for adults—isn’t it? The market for kid’s books is also hot, which must represent a significant attraction for many. But writers who can cross easily back and forth between writing adult books and writing kid’s books are rare. Ursula Le Guin can do it. Wharton is another.
Wharton’s The Perilous Realm series—The Shadow of Malabran, The Fathomless Fire, and The Tree of Story—is now complete after the publication of the final book in the fall of 2013. This is a series about story. It begins with Will Lightfoot, one of the two main characters, who finds his way into the Perilous Realm after stealing his father’s vintage motorcycle while he, his sister, and his dad drive west to a new home. Will and Jess’s mother is dead, and the family is starting a new life. But Will is angry—naturally enough—and he rebels by taking his dad’s motorcycle while they are stopped at a campsite. He wants to go back down the highway to find a tacky carnival called The Perilous Realm.
The opening of the series has Will tearing down the highway on a stolen motorcycle, helmetless, with the cops not far behind. Quite the opening for a kid’s book. Will crashes the bike, and finds himself in another world, where he meets Rowen, a girl about his own age, but one who wears a red cloak and knows her way about a dark forest.
The Perilous Realm is the world of Story. It’s populated by characters from fairy tales, and Will has to discover his own story in order to get home. The threat to this world is Malabran, the Night King, who is intent on devouring all stories so only his own remains, which is one of destruction and terror. The series follows Will, Rowen, and their various companions, until Will and Rowen have to venture into the Shadow realm itself to find Nicholas Pendrake, Rowen’s grandfather, and to stop the Night King before all of the stories disappear. The final confrontation around the great Tree of Story redefines such endings in kid’s fantasy, but you will have to read your way through to find out what happens.
The series is epic in proportion, and it follows in the tradition of Tolkien and Lewis—but sharing more with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. It’s medieval in flavour, and has some interesting bits that even hint at steampunk. The series centres on Will and Rowen, but it has an impressive cast of characters
Not every writer can write for kids, and many writers shouldn’t. Some writers can write about kids, or can represent the experience of the child—often from an adult perspective. But that’s different from writing for kids.
Wharton is able to write for both adults and children. Everything for Wharton resonates around story, which is why he moves easily between one genre and the other. From Icefields and Salamander, his first and second novels for adults, to The Perilous Realm series, it all comes down to story.
In an editorial published in On Spec Magazine, 2011, Wharton writes: “First and foremost, a good story makes a reader want to read it.” Such a point is noteworthy because it draws attention to the story as something told and something heard. Somebody is telling it, but somebody needs to hear it.
Wharton continues: “The craft of fantasy is at its core the same as the craft of any fiction: a good story it grabs a reader’s attention and sustains it. When you sit down to write, don’t forget you’re a storyteller.”
But the storyteller is only half of the equation; at heart, story is the interaction between the teller and the listener. The good storyteller knows his or her audience. If that audience is a kid, then the storyteller better watch out. Kids can spot condescension a mile away. They may not know how to use big words, but they get narrative. Sometimes it’s the snot-monster who will call out the machine. And if the machine finds it in himself to ask the snot-monster for a story, then story becomes the place where everyone can meet—telling stories, turn by turn. Either way, it’s the interaction—the telling and the listening—that brings the story into being. Happy telling, and happy reading.