Thursday, January 27, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from W. C. Fields

This week (January 29) marks the the 131st anniversary of the birth of W. C. Fields.

Conventional Wisdom says that it was Fields who once said, "Never act in a picture with kids or animals. They'll upstage you every time." I've since read that Conventional Wisdom was mistaken, but hey, it does seem like his style. After all, he did say, "I like children--fried."

Now personally I like being upstaged. Every so often at a school visit a child will ask if I'm famous (ha!). I always answer that I'm not and I don't want to be. I want only my work to be famous. I want my subjects to outshine me every time, and if I write well, they do.

But really, where would a children's writer be without kids or animals? They're pretty much our stock in trade. Talking pigs and pigeons, round-headed kids dragging big purple crayons--that's who we're all about, isn't it?

But I think I know what Fields meant. It's all too easy for any book with cute kids and fuzzy animals to wander into the land of the saccharine, to be just so sweet and adorable, the book loses all relevance to the real world. It's what editors mean when they say a book isn't "edgy" enough: it's just too sweet to be real.

I think any book, fiction or nonfiction, needs a balance. Even a fuzzy velveteen rabbit can have an edge.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Charles Perrault

This week, January 12, we celebrate the 383rd anniversary of the birth of fairy tale author Charles Perrault.

Ah, fairy tales. Once again I have to go back to the set of books I was given when I was nine or ten. It was a set of abridged "classics." Fat little books they were, mostly because they were two books in one. LITTLE WOMEN flipped over to LITTLE MEN. There was TOM SAWYER on one side, HUCK FINN on the other. And there were two sets of fairy tales, one by Hans Christian Andersen, the other by the Brothers Grimm. I literally read those books to shreds. (Nothing to pass on to my own kids--sorry guys.)

But it was Perrault who laid the foundations built upon by Andersen and Grimm. Before Perrault, fairy tales were part of the oral tradition, well-known stories passed from one generation to another, but never written down. Perrault set these tales down with a great deal of wit and elegant detail. He published his book, TALES OF MOTHER GOOSE, in 1697 in Paris. And with that, a new genre was born. (Think of it--writing something so groundbreaking that it constitutes an entirely new genre. Yikes!)

Among Perrault's stories were some of the most familiar fairy tales of Western Civilization: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood. These stories are so well-rooted in our culture, it's easy to overlook them. But next time you're tempted, try counting all the different ways the Cinderella story has been told. It's been updated, reworked, staged as an opera, a ballet, and a musical. There are hundreds of movie versions, going all the way back to the silent era.

As children's writers we sometimes are dismissed by adults as something less than "real" writers. I'll think of Perrault when that happens. He created something so timeless it deserves to be called "classic."