17 April 2009

“Young People Don’t Want to Read About Characters Their Age”

A few years ago I attended an SCBWI conference in California where Richard Peck was speaking. At one point he pronounced (Peck never just says something when he's making a point) words to this effect:

Young people do not want to read about people like themselves.

They want to read about the people they
wish to be.
That had the snap of an aphorism Peck might have delivered in other talks and essays, so I went looking for it in his 2002 essay collection Invitations to the World: Teaching and Writing for the Young. (Some of that book had first appeared in 1994 in Love and Death at the Mall.)

But I couldn't find quite the same remark. I found some similar, less pithy thoughts on various pages of the book:
I’d wanted to hold up a mirror to my readers. I’d thought they wanted to be recognized by books. They did, but they wanted to see themselves in more interesting (less seriously challenging) settings. . . .

Whether in first person or third, a novel is told by its characters. My protagonists would have to be something more than recognizable. They’d need to be a blend of the real and the ideal. They’d have to be able to do something the readers couldn’t, or wouldn’t. . . .

Young people don’t want to read about characters their age. They want to read about people who are two years older. At whatever age they are, they believe that real life doesn’t start until twenty-four months later, when they will be fully evolved.
I think that model fits for most of the books that kids read--but not all.

One notable exception are Barbara Park's Junie P. Jones series. Junie's adventures in kindergarten and first grade are pegged for children age 4 to 8--i.e., some who are twenty-four months older than the protagonist.

As the New York Times reported a couple of years ago, some ideologically-minded adults dislike the Junie P. Jones books for their narrative voice, which is full of the grammatical mistakes of an enthusiastic but not very advanced kindergartner. They also complain that Junie is often impolite, hoggish, and generally a poor role model--again, like an enthusiastic but not very advanced kindergartner. But that's the whole point of Junie P. Jones.

Park's books are aimed at beginning readers, slightly older than Junie. The first one has publisher's copy that begins, "Remember when it was scary to go to school?..." In other words, readers are supposed to be able to look back on Junie's problems, not ahead. Of course, she can still do "something the readers couldn't, or wouldn't"--and they can watch her getting in trouble for doing that. As for the language, one convert commented over at CrunchyCon:
When Amelia was younger, I was constantly having to "edit" what I was reading to her. Now that she's old enough to read the books aloud to me, she gets a kick out of telling ME when Junie B's misusing the language.
So sometimes children enjoy reading about a person they don't wish to be.

TOMORROW: Alvin Ho--also allergic to aphorisms.


ericshanower said...

When I was a kid, I always wanted the main child characters in books to be the same age I was. If they were older than me, it felt disjointed to me. Maybe I was just the exception to the rule, but I have no understanding of a child's desire to read about older children.

Elizabeth said...

This is really interesting. I think the early Ramona books, like Ramona the Pest, are another example in the Junie B. Jones vein. (Beezus and Ramona has an even younger Ramona, but as I recall is more from Beezus's perspective.)

J. L. Bell said...

Ramona is actually a latecomer for me; I'm old enough to have read Henry and Beezus first, and Ramona was just a pestery kid sister then. Either her personality was strong enough to warrant her own books, or Beezus started to get too old for beginning readers to relate to.