In the 5-6/11 Horn Book article “Send in the Clowns: Picture Books About Grownups,” Leonard S. Marcus debunks a misconception that has become quite pervasive: the notion that books for kids must be about kids.
Of course kids do like to read about kids—just not exclusively.
Leonard’s sharply written article reminds us that many time-tested fairy tales and stories from children’s literature do not include children, from Cinderella to Good Night, Gorilla. (Some fairy tales were not even originally intended for children.)
Good Night, Gorilla brings up an interesting tangent: books in which all characters, or at least the main character, are/is an animal. Children generally love animals and gravitate to such books despite the lack of a “relatable character” who relates to them literally (i.e. a human).
More to the point, take classic Curious George—although those books don’t have a child in a leading role, George himself, while simian, is clearly meant to serve as a child figure. So in my mind, those don’t count as “children’s books with no children in them.”
The article focuses on picture book fiction. It’s worth reflecting on this same topic with respect to picture book nonfiction.
I don’t believe every nonfiction picture book must address childhood. In, say, a biography, if there is an organic way to incorporate the subject’s youth, by all means. However, if it will feel forced, better to acknowledge that and start with the aspect of the story that better suits your story—even if that is a scene that is the very opposite of youth, such as a character on his deathbed! Just because a person becomes notable as an adult does not mean there were specific and documented signs when he was a child.
In my upcoming picture book biography of Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of Batman, I start the story when Bill was young (young enough to have the word “boy” in the as-yet-unrevealed title)—but not so young that he was a child. (The first line is about his high school graduation.)
There were at least a couple of fun anecdotes about his childhood that early drafts included, but when it came time to streamline, they had to go because they didn’t have a strong enough link to the rest of the story as I am telling it. (Happily, I will still be able to share these anecdotes on this blog and in presentations.)
Age-appropriateness of the book is always more important than the age of the characters. In other words, you can tell great stories to young people with characters of any age (or gender, or race, or personality). Think of all the books and movies where a child has an emotional connection not to another child but to an adult or something nonhuman.
Readers, including kids, want to read about characters they can relate to...but luckily we live in a world where we don’t have to be like someone to relate to him or her.
And isn’t that a message we want to pass on to our children?