Growing Pains: Combining humor and pathos in children’s book writing

Standard

Illustration by Hans Fischer (1959): Pitschi

It was British fantasy writer, Dianna Wynne Jones who said she would much rather write for children. Because she didn’t have to explain things to them as she did with adults (editors, etc.). Jones was not trying to imply that children were credulous, but rather that they were sophisticated readers. Children could make imaginative leaps that many adults had forgotten how to do.

In late March 2015, the long-awaited fourth book in the Penderwicks series was finally released. I devoured it almost in one sitting. Like Jones, Jane Birdsall is an author who assumes the sophistication of her child readers. Penderwicks in Spring doesn’t land feet first in the middle of the action, as is the fashion today. But along with strains of gentle humor, there is a haunting pathos that runs through the book like a forgotten song. It compels the reader’s attention.

Birdsall opens her fourth book some years later, as 11-year old Batty wrestles with self-recriminations over the natural loss of her dog, Hound–Hound whom readers have come to love almost as deeply as Batty does. As the book unfolds, Batty’s guilt over Hound’s death gives way to an incomprehensible pain, when she learns from one sister of the role she played in their mother’s death. Throughout the book we find young Batty wrestling with huge conflicts—conflicts of a Job-like magnitude.

As with any good work of art, Penderwicks in Spring stayed with me—It resonated so deeply that I felt almost as depressed as poor Batty did, hiding wretchedly in her closet, unable to face the world or her family. I worried that this likeable character might not pull through in the end.

In addition to creating believable characters and endearingly funny scenes, Birdsall is a true master of human pathos. The brilliance of the Penderwicks series, is that in all four books at least one or more characters must navigate soul-wrenching growing pains. Given the sophistication and depth of young readers, it’s a skill well-worth developing for any children’s book author.

This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind

Image

The most breathtaking books are sometimes the hardest to review. Such a one is This House of Sky, Ivan Doig’s memoir of his growing up years in 1930-40s Montana. Few authors manage to sustain the pure language of poetry for over three hundred pages, but Doig does. In 1975, after spending half the day reworking the opening sentence of his manuscript, he confides in his journal:

“It would be magnificent to do the entire book with this slow care, writing it all as highly charged as poetry–but will I ever find the time?”

And highly charged his writing is, from first page to last. Here’s an excerpt from page one:

“The stream flees north through this secret and peopleless land until, under the fir-dark flanks of Hatfield Mountain, a bow of meadow makes the riffled water curl wide to the west. At this interruption, a low rumple of the mountain knolls itself up watchfully, and atop it, like a sentry box over the frontier between the sly creek and the prodding meadow, perches our single-room herding cabin.”

The sheer beauty of Doig’s writing swept me along in a broad river of words. It wouldn’t have mattered so much what he was writing about. The subject matter happened to be the lost world of Montana–the stark, primordial land, and those who worked it. Doig’s memoir featured his sheepherding, Scottish-American cowboy father who taught his son everything he needed to know to survive off that land. Most impressively, this unschooled, hardscrabble father encouraged his son to attend the University of Chicago and become a writer.

Steeped in the rich cadences of Montana ranch life, Doig succeeded in rendering his boyhood memories, manner of speaking, and cherished people into poetic language. And in this way, opened a window for us to a now vanished world.

___________________________________

What author has transported you to previously unimagined places through the use of rich, metaphorical language?

Please leave your comment below. I love to hear your thoughts.