I am both the father of a toddler and an animation enthusiast. Combined together, these mean that I read and watch a lot of children’s content and, as a result, have developed no small frustration for how many of them are of dreadful quality. When I see something that is immature, irresponsible, or poorly produced I imagine the rationale for such abysmal production values is something along the lines of “Well yeah, it’s bad…but this is just for kids.” Whether or not this statement is ever actually said between producers and creators, this “well it’s just for kids” mentality pervades our media and it is a deplorable notion. We give our children the worst we have to offer, when they of all people are the most deserving and needing of our very best.
I believe the root cause of this trend is based on an assumption that children won’t care about half-baked efforts because, well, children are stupid. Why else would they put up with such drivel? This idea, though prevalent, is based entirely on the fallacy that a person’s amount of knowledge and context is the same as their intelligence. Knowing more is assumed to equate to having a better mind. People frequently make this mistake when interacting with foreign visitors, too. Because a foreigner does not know the language or cultural customs they are talked down to and assumed to be simple-minded, although they may be geniuses in their own land.
When I look at my three-year-old son I get the distinct impression is that he is quite an intelligent person. Not that he is an intelligent toddler, not that he is intelligent for his age. Just that he is an intelligent person. In fact, I get the idea that he is more intelligent than I am, myself. True, his mind is still developing, and his ability to comprehend complex concepts is still maturing, but that does not make him dumb. When I tell him a story I want to respect his inherent intelligence. I may, for the time being, tell him stories that are simplified, but I know the difference between simplification and talking-down-to, and I never do the latter.
Another assumption people make about children’s tales is that they can’t tackle difficult topics. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is perfectly fine for children’s stories to deal with subjects such as death, divorce, or even abuse. Indeed, it’s important for youth that are dealing with these life events to have sources to guide them through these minefields. But the children’s story that takes on these matters should approach them gently and sensitively, with utmost care for youth’s tenderness. The intention should be to provide a place where these traumas can be contemplated in a way that feels safe.
There are, fortunately, a few examples of children’s stories that do a very excellent job of respecting their audience and also speaking from the heart. One that I’m personally very fond of is Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss. Dr Seuss speaks passionately and reverently of how wonderful the child being read his story is. He spends a great amount of time praising their greatness, but he’s also going to warn them that they have some weaknesses, too. He tells it to each child straight: they absolutely will fail at some point in their lives, but that that will not be the end of their story. Instead of condemning them, he assures that they can get back up on their feet, off to more wonderful things as soon as they are able.
Another great source of passionate, child-respectful stories is found in the decades-long work of Mister Rogers. With him every child’s emotions were validated. You weren’t a bad person for feeling sorrow or anger, loss or brokenness. He loved you just as you were, and as a friend he wanted to help you process through those feelings. It wasn’t all sober treks across the landscapes of the heart, though, there was also time for fun. His show’s daily trips to the land of make-believe gave a clear message to children that indulging in a little healthy pretend is not just acceptable, it’s vital!
A third example of an excellent children’s story, and one that is far more recent, would be the Pixar film Inside Out. Its portrayal of emotions and childhood development resonate deeply and also compassionately. Its depiction of complex adolescence is so on point that it came as no surprise when I learned of how the film-makers involved professional psychologists in the creation of its themes. Paul Ekman and Dachner Keltner’s expert consultations shine through in the finished work, resulting in a portrayal that is both honest, and also teaches healthy behavior and coping methods. This sort of dedication to accuracy and education elevate the film past the status of just interesting to truly important.
So, what is the consistent theme in all of these examples? What exactly is it that makes for a good children’s story? It’s really quite simple. Make a good story…for children. Be just as creative in your tale for children as you would with any other story, share a message that’s just as heartfelt, and be just as honest about it. Still do your research, still talk to experts, and still put in as much thought and hard work into getting it right. Do your outlines, your character sketches, your drafts, and do them thoroughly. Be passionate, be sincere, be dedicated. Let your great driving motivation be to help and delight your young audience, not just to make a quick buck off of them. In short, all the time and love and commitment you would put into any other story, your children’s stories deserve the same treatment.
When a tale is written with the honest labor and kind intentions outlined above, it is going to be a good story. Not good for its age group. Not good compared to other children’s books. Just a good story. It will be a story that can be enjoyed by everyone, including children. More than that, you’ll feel downright proud of yourself, knowing that you’ve helped a wonderful young mind along its way to health and happiness.
For the last three weeks I’ve shared some stories that were primarily intended for a child, my toddler son. Each one of these stories I outlined, drafted, and iterated on as much as I did any of my other tales. Each one I have tried to imbue with a special kernel of novelty. I’d like to finish this series of Phillip the Mouse adventures with two more entries. They are simple and gentle, but also still bear important lessons for every age of reader, given that they speak to perplexities we all face, youth and aged alike. Come back on Thursday to see how those turn out, and then next week we will move into entirely different territory.