14 March 2009

Fantasy in Very Small Doses

The Institute of Children's Literature has posted an interesting article by Jan Fields on "Magical Magazine Fiction." As to writing for the youngest subscribers:

For preschoolers, magazine fantasy is pretty much limited to talking animal stories (where the animals talk only to other animals). Editors prefer not to see talking inanimate objects (this includes talking teddy bears, talking toasters or talking oak trees) - again, because small children are still learning the difference between what is alive and conscious and what is not.
So, paradoxically, very young children are too quick to believe in magic for them to get much of a charge out of fantasy. Or perhaps the adults in their lives (parents, teachers, magazine editors) recognize that one of their big tasks at this developmental stage is to figure out what's real, and talking toasters would seem to confuse them.

As for older readers, they have a better sense of what defines fantasy. But there's an even bigger major challenge.

Rule #1 in writing fiction for children's magazines is that it has to be short. Shorter than you imagined the story. Shorter than you think you can make it. Even shorter than that.

Rule #1 in writing fantasy is that you have to define the boundaries of the fantastic elements--the rules of magic, the types of creatures, etc.--before they become crucial in the plot. Otherwise, they'll just seem convenient. And rather than lay out those rules explicitly, it's usually better to show them in action in some early episode.

So the first Rule #1 can come into direct conflict with the second, since defining or showing the magic requires a lot more words than are necessary for a story set in the universe readers recognize as their own. As Fields says:
Because all magazine fiction has such tight word counts, stories for intermediates (readers who read) often rely on certain preset reader expectations. A sea adventure may have a sea monster. A castle may be besieged by a dragon. You can play with existing forms such as creating an athletic princess or a bookish knight, but you won't usually see the introduction of totally new creatures or complex societies that need lots of explanation for the reader to understand. . . .

This is why you see so much castle-medieval-fantasy in intermediate short stories, the conventions are part of the culture so we don't need a lot of explanation to grasp the story.
And did I mention the story has to be short as well?


Anonymous said...

Re the second long quote: bollocks.

Sorry. But really.

There's no reason you can't write a short story where a character climbs aboard their giant snail to travel the wet desert of Nonsense World to fetch the blankie that was left behind at the giant peach market.

If there's anything that David Wiesner (of Sector 7, June 29, 1999, etc. fame)has demonstrated is that you can make the world impossible and still tell a short story that kids will love.

And where the #$%^@! did the kids get those tired British tropes anyway but through stories? This is an excuse to reinforce the same cultural norms, over and over.

I have a great deal more to say about this, but I'll save it for Nashua. (When I finally calm down and can be a tad more polite about the matter. :-/ )

J. L. Bell said...

David Wiesner creates picture books. Those indeed have very few words—none at all, in the case of Sector 7.

But they have many more pictures than the handful at most that a magazine story gets. By the traditional though inexact formula of a picture being the equivalent of a thousand words, Wiesner has the power of about 15,000 words in each illustrated book. More than enough to establish a strange world and immerse readers in that fantastic experience.

It therefore doesn't seem fair to compare picture books and magazine stories in how easily they establish an unfamiliar world. They just work differently. I'd welcome examples of fantasy stories from children's magazines that go against Jan Fields's advice, though.

Thinking further, I posit that experience matters in fantasy picture books more than narrative. Wiesner's Flotsam, Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen, and Eric Rohmann's The Cinder-Eyed Cats, to take some fine examples, don't really have strong stories that can stand on their own, separate from the art. They're simple journeys through space or time, made beautiful and fantastic by what readers can see happening. Picture books don't need to be as plot-driven as magazine stories, I think.

As long as I'm thinking about these questions, I'll note George and the Dragon as a great picture book that's entirely based on classic European tropes/clichés, but upends them. We don't need to know why the dragon is attacking the castle and stealing the princess; we come to the story knowing that's what dragons often do.

Anonymous said...

Actually, this makes a lot of sense to me. Your example, AliceB, of "the wet desert of Nonsense World" doesn't grab me -- because I'm not seeing the details of what would make Nonsense World interesting, because you didn't have the space to put them.

Whereas actual writers who've done things like what you're describing, whether L. Frank Baum or China Mieville, are favorites of mine. But it's the details that make them work.

Anonymous said...

The very short answer to "show me an example" is that I don't have one. The beginning of a much longer answer is that there is a bias in publishing against providing something other than what fits Western tropes and that is probably why I'm going to have a hard time finding one.

Yes. I used the word bias deliberately.

No. I'm not saying that it's willful. But it's still very much there.

I do understand the difference between pbs and articles. What I am thoroughly disturbed about is that we should ever accept "we can't do any different because we've always done it that way."

I'm going to recommend an essay called "I Didn't Dream of Dragons". Don't be put off by the warning at the beginning asking whether you are over 14 -- it appears to be a default setting for that blog. The content of the essay is about cultural viewpoints, and how the overwhelming viewpoint in fantasy and science fiction leaves out too many points of view.

Short aside to Elizabeth: Even a short magazine story has more than 28 words in it. If I wrote it, there'd be some elaboration. But not so much. Kids have remarkable imaginations. Ironically, in this context, I got the idea from a story I read as a child in French. I can't remember the plot. But I dearly loved the giant snails.

As a p.s. -- I am very fond of Western tropes, too. (You'll note I've used them in my work.) But that doesn't mean that they are the only ones that should exist.

J. L. Bell said...

In fairness to Jan Fields, I should insert the words I took out of that second passage for length:

“Keep in mind that exposition slows the plot and dulls the story, so it's difficult to create totally new fantasy elements that intermediate readers can grasp without stopping the story to explain these things - thus much intermediate fantasy depends on using things the reader will recognize. You can twist the things a bit to make them more interesting and surprising - but even that works best when the reader is familiar with the original tradition.”

I think readers could easily accept riding on a giant snail if it functioned within the fantasy in much the same way as a knight's horse or a city bus. The challenge I see in AliceB's top-of-the-head scenario is laying out the parameters of "Nonsense World." What can people do there, and what can't they do?

And this discussion has already used more words than most magazine stories contain.

Anonymous said...

I think readers could easily accept riding on a giant snail if it functioned within the fantasy in much the same way as a knight's horse or a city bus. The challenge I see in AliceB's top-of-the-head scenario is laying out the parameters of "Nonsense World." What can people do there, and what can't they do?

Yes, I think this is a clearer way of saying what I was trying to say.

AliceB, I'm very interested in your point about non-Western story conventions, but I still feel that I don't really understand it.