When it comes to kids books, or kids for that matter, it truly is the simple things that count.
This week has been one great big crash course in remembering what it’s like to be a kid — an essential exercise for anyone so fool-hardy as to write for kids as her primary audience. They’re a tough crowd when it comes to judging whether a book is worth their very precious time and effort… at least that’s true of my five nephews and nieces whom i’ve had the delight of visiting in Spain this week. They are each of them ravenous readers (including 3-year-old David, though he gets a little help from his friends).
The Grant Gang’s bookshelves are double-stacked and overflowing with well-worn books covering just about every subject a kid could fancy under the moon — there are the Fancy Nancy and fairy books for 4-year-old Abigail, Andrew at 7 likes his pirates stories and anything with “potty humour”, and 10-year-old Anna, & Amelia, the oldest by one year, read just about ANYTHING they can get their hands one…. TWICE! This week it’s been the How to Train Your Dragon Series, along with a bit of Boxcar Children and Little House in the Prairie.
What I’ve observed is this: the books that make the cut, the books with the tattiest, most well-loved covers all share some special “it factor”, whether they be published 40 years ago or hot off the press this year. And my sneaking suspicion is that it’s this: they capture the magic of the simple wonders of childhood. You know, like those cast-off little scraps that go into the shoebox under the bed & somehow transform into treasures.
I can still open the shoebox in my mind and remember the delicious tidbits from my childhood reading that struck me then and staid with me ever after — Laura Ingles making candy out of maple syrup poured on fresh snow in Little House in the Big Woods... Anne from Anne of Green Gables entering a 3-legged race and finishing with a ribbon and a bossom friend… the deliciousness of her first Christmas party, getting to drink punch & act elegant… all part of the furniture of my childhood imagination.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a story with pizzazz. Give me wand-waving, dragon-riding, battle-waging any day, and I’ll lap it up. But even the best magical, epic tales triumph because of the little, simple details. What I love most about the Redwall series is not so much the battle-scenes (brilliant though they are) but the food! the minute details of every little forest dish prepared by loving mouse paws. Just the mention of Redwall, and I can taste it, smell it, fall into it – it’s magical!
And isn’t that just the way in childhood? At least that’s what a week with my nieces and nephews has reminded me. Oh the thrills of having blackberry ice cream with berries picked fresh on our walk. We might as well have fallen into Peter Rabbit’s world! A game of badminton on the lawn? No Wimbledon match could hold a candle to the epic competition between brothers and sisters! And a twilight walk through he park with a brand new pair of walky-talkies was as exhilarating as any spy thriller ever could be. And as for humour, “talking tummies” on our stomachs kept us entertained for days.
So I hope you’ll be encouraged, as I have been, that maybe our readers are not be so jaded by modern over-stimulation as we fear. Don’t underestimate a child’s undying fascination for life’s little adventure. The simplest forms of magic, I believe, still leave the longest lasting trace. As the old adage as it, “God is in the details.” When it comes to writing kids’ classics that will transcend generations, the magic is definitely in the details.