I've started to write a story for a contest where the subject of the story is time. After reviewing the submission requirements, which speciffically forbids 'Children's Fiction,' my story idea begs the question: What exactly constitutes a children's story?
My story plays with the concept of time itself, personifying it, and pokes fun at time-based cliches. It has a bit of a cartoonish feel to it, but I am (hopefully) approaching the subject from a much more philosophical perspective. I would be pretty disappointed if it was summarily rejected because they thought it was a children's story.
Would I need to bloody it up? Add some dark fantasy elements? I'm sure I could make it very 'adult' if I had to, but that would be a lot less fun for me and quite beside the point.
I see 'Toy Story' as an obvious children's story, but what about 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'? or 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'? All of these examples plainly have some adult themes throughout.
This is a fun story for me to write either way, but it seems like the line between adult and children's fiction is not black and white.
Young characters with young people's dramatic complications characterize children's fiction. They tend to preach more than adult fiction too. A quality many self-ordained or appointed moral authorities look for as essential in children's literature is life lessons taught and learned. Artful children's literature packages acculturation that's not so overt it calls undue attention to lessons and messages. Persuasive, that's the ticket.
Middle grade complications tend toward experiencing initial forays into the gray degrees of existence separate and apart from parentally imposed black and white, right and wrong, and good and evil values.
Young adult tends the same direction but with more shades of gray. And most significantly, independent self-identity experimentation: teenage rebellion in a nutshell. Early adult continues experimental identity formation but affirms identity in the process.
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I am sure for the purposes of the contest in question it merely means no stories specifically written for children, which probably also extends down to "no stories featuring only children as main characters" though that gross generalization is hardly appropriate for characterizing children's lit. There are plenty of great books with young protags that aren't really child-lit (The Book Thief, by Zusak, is a recent example.) And plenty of child protag books that are appropriate for children and belong on best-of lists of fiction for all ages (A Wrinkle in Time, for ex.)
But for the contest, I'm sure they just mean nothing you've written specifically for a children's market or featuring sub-teenaged protagonists.
Good luck. Sounds like you've got a playful story.
FWIW, the preachy stuff isn't particularly popular among the actual kid readers. It shows up on the lists of best children's lit all the time, but the sales numbers don't generally back it as being popular w/kids. MG readers mostly like adventure, excitement. YA readers seem to like boundary pushing and some examination of self/defining self. Or so it is in the MG/YA circles I travel.
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Heinlein once said (or was quoted as saying---and I'm paraphrasing anyway) that he wrote his "juveniles" by writing the best book he could write---and then cut the sex.
Somehow I always thought there had to be a little more to it than that...
One can make the assumption that the audience for cartoons consists solely of children---but that'd be erroneous.
The Looney Tunes / Merry Melodies / Warner Bros. cartoons were meant to be shown with adult movies like Casablanca or Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, and, therefore, seen by adults---they weren't really meant to be shown as Saturday morning cartoons.
Certainly that spirit comes down to the modern-day practitioners, with their injokes and attention to details. The Pixar crew try to stick the Pizza Planet truck from the first Toy Story and the voice of John Ratzenberger into every movie they've made---something the kiddies won't "get," but us adults (or proto-adults, i. e. "teenagers") will.
(I exaggerate somewhat in saying the Warner Bros. cartoons were intended for an adult audience---many of 'em give every appearance of having been done by the animators to amuse themselves, first and foremost.)
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All of your examples (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Toy Story, The Nightmare before Christmas) fit my idea of children stories. I know Jack the Pumpkin King isn't a child protagonist, but he has a child-like sense of wonder that puts him there IMO.
Like Meredith said, children stories can be dark, and many adults do enjoy children stories too (I certainly do), and that might blurr the lines a little bit.
To me, adult stories have a little more depth and complexity, and as Extrinsic pointed out, more morally grey areas. There are elements in the story that would be hard for young children (I mean young not preteen's and adolescence) to wrap their minds around.
Honestly, the way I'd judge this is whether or not the story would appeal on some level to my seven year-old. If the answer is "yes" than I would see it as a childrens story.
I just want to reiterate that it only needs to appeal to kids on one level. One of the reason some children stories appeal to adults and kids is that it has different levels to it, and the kids appreciate the story on one level while the adults appreciate it on a higher level. But if young kids can get it and enjoy it on any level, then to me, that is a childrens story.
I hope that made sense.
But you shouldn't worry about it. Don't alter your vision of your story to try to make it more mature. Write the story the way you want it, and just see what happens. There is no way to know how the judges will see your story.