Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Fish by Fiona Watt, Elmer by David McKee, A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle or When I Am Big by Penny Johnson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I might have mentioned once or twice before that I have a little daughter. She’s only a toddler, but she loves playing with books (not always reading from start to finish, but carefully examining them at any rate) and she loves it when we read to her (read to your kids, guys). As a result, we’ve amassed quite a collection of childrens’ books in her short lifetime.

‘And so,’ my wife suggested, ‘why not write a Super Snappy Speed Reviews post about books for children?’

‘Good idea!’ I thought. After all, I’ve already speed-reviewed books [2] [3], TV shows [2], filmscomputer gameswriters’ apps and even the Star Trek movies, so this time it’s going to be all about books for small children. I’ve picked 5 of my daughter’s favourites and reviewed them all in only a few short sentences.

As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinion. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for young children. They are not books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. These reviews reflect nothing but my own impressions and opinions, shrank, squished and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Fish by Fiona Watt

It’s difficult to summarise this story without plagiarising it, since the whole story is only a couple of sentences long. Suffice it to say it’s a perfectly simple little story about a fish looking for his friend and finding him without any real difficulty. The book itself is also soft, like a pillow, though my daughter has shown no interest in this aspect of it. She just hands it to me and says ‘Again!’ before waiting expectantly for me to read it again… and again… and again. Ideal for children aged one year and under.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Elmer by David McKee

If you like your childrens’ books to be fun but still carry a message about diversity, you can’t go wrong with Elmer. It’s a little dated (I remember it from when I was little) but I enjoyed it then and I still like it now. The story takes a fairly heavy subject and makes it reasonably accessible and enjoyable for slightly older children, owing to its length and relatively complex narrative style.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson

Another story with a lesson, this time about appreciating what you’ve got. The story is written in a simple rhyme with lots of repetition making it highly accessible and enjoyable for small children. Even as an adult, I can’t help but appreciate the humour in this story as the protagonist, following the advice of the slightly puckish wise man, tries to make more room in her house by filling it up with various farm animals, before her final glorious epiphany in the end. A great story to read to your toddler.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

My daughter, like every other toddler I’ve ever come across, loves this book. Like A Squash and a Squeeze, there is a repetitive pattern to most of the story which makes it highly accessible for a child of her age and a goodly dash of humour. It also provides her with a sly introduction to numbers and days of the week. She tends to lose interest at the part where the caterpillar makes a cocoon, and I suspect this is due to the way the narrative suddenly loses its sense of rhythm and repetition. Frankly, even I find the narrative drags a bit there, but apart from that, this book is a must-have for any toddlers bookshelf.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟
When I Am Big by Penny Johnson

This is a sweet, if not terribly exciting, little story about a rabbit wistfully looking forward to all the fun things she’ll be able to do when she’s older. It is written with a simple ‘AABBCC’ rhyming system, though it perhaps lacks that repetitive quality which would make it even more accessible to a one year old. It’s a nice enough story although it doesn’t hold always manage to hold my daughter’s attention all the way through.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

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Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

If you’re serious about writing stories, you need to be serious about writing characters. No story is complete without them. This we know. We also know that your characters can make or break your story depending on how well they’ve been constructed. Apart from that, of course, your characters can be anybody you want them to be (in fact, the more variety the better, I find). You can make them male or female; black or white; rich or poor; gay or straight; nasty or nice or even human or non-human. It’s the non-human characters (particularly animals – I’ll come to the others next week) I want to talk about today.

Non-human characters are nothing new. They’re everywhere. We’ve all seen more dog or cat movies than we can care to remember, right? Meanwhile fans of shows like Doctor Who will be all too familiar with the concept of an alien protagonist. C.S. Lewis loved writing stories which featured talking animals, while his friend J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps best known for Lord of the Rings, which follows the adventures, not of a human, but of a Hobbit. And in short fiction? Why, only last week, my regular readers were subjected to a story with a certain rodent protagonist.

I’ll be spending most of this week dealing with how to write animals in particular (because it’s ever so slightly more complicated), however, no matter what non-human species your protagonist may be, there is one golden rule you absolutely must keep in mind at all times. Ready? This is it:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, you need to anthropomorphise your character to one extent or another. Perhaps only a little, perhaps a lot, but to some extent, you need to give your non-human character certain human traits to make them relatable. At the very least, they will probably need to be able to think like humans in order to work through their goals, conflicts, epiphanies, etc. and possibly will need to speak like humans too (though there are numerous examples of strong animal characters who do not speak).

Of all the non-human characters you might create, animals are arguably the hardest. Unlike aliens or mythical creatures, animals are something we all see every day and science has studied them all from almost every angle, in terms of how they think, how they’re physically built and how they relate to others. While this might seem like a boon for us authors (after all, it should make research easier… right?) it can also be a bit of a pain if you’re remotely concerned about realism.

For example, in The Church Mouse, my protagonist was (you’ve guessed it) a mouse. In real life, mice have incredibly poor eyesight and find their way using their whiskers. Unfortunately, my story would not have actually worked quite as well if the mouse had been blind (for instance, he is seen examining a mouse trap in the second chapter to make sure it’s not potentially lethal). The easiest way around this is to do what I did — give him the five basic senses of a human. We can easily write that off as artistic licence. Apart from that, I left him physically as a normal mouse; walking on four legs, leaving his mess just lying around about him and having a strong sense of smell.

The larger problem, of course, was in the mind. Mice do not think the way humans do. I don’t for one second claim to be an expert on the psychology of rodents, but I’m pretty confident they don’t have goals, plans and motives like Mr. Mouse did – and even if they do, they certainly don’t think about them conceptualise them in rational terms like Mr. Mouse does. However, in order for your audience to relate to your animal character, you need to give them a mind which is close enough to being human for a human audience to relate to them. In the case of Mr. Mouse, the only truly rodentian quality I preserved was the way the smell of chocolate worked him up into a frenzy of instinctive, primal desire. This provided him with a motive. Beyond that, his thinking (his goals and epiphany; his opinions of the ‘idiot’ Landlord and even his concept of God) was quite human. It needed to be so for the audience to care about him.

Take a moth for instance, instinctively flying towards a flame. In all probability, moths cannot explain to themselves or anyone else why they are drawn to something as deadly as fire (do they even have a concept of what mortality is?). It’s pure instinct. But give a moth the rational mind of a human and suddenly you have a story about forbidden desires; about lust, danger, temptation and death. They know it’s not allowed. They know it’s bad for them but they just can’t resist. Suddenly we’re in Moth-Eden and the Moth-Devil is whispering in Moth-Eve’s ear,

‘You shall not surely die, for God knows if you go near the flame, you will be like God understanding good and evil… ‘ 

A word of warning, however. There is a danger in going too far with all of this. Too much anthropomorphism can lead to your character becoming a bit ridiculous, which will be disastrous for your story unless you happen to be writing a comic, cartoon or lighthearted family movie. Mr. Mouse, for example, never actually spoke. could have given him the ability to speak, but it was unnecessary. He never once interacted with another character (whether human or mouse) so it made more sense to simply write what he was thinking from one moment to the next. If I had him sitting on a little sofa in his mouse hole, reading the Sunday paper and sipping a cup of tea, it would have all got a little bit too Tom and Jerry... which is fine if that’s what you’re wanting to create but the more serious your story, the more understated I recommend you keep this. Remember, you only want to anthropomorphise them enough for the audience to understand and care about what happens to them. Think carefully, therefore, about how far along the anthropomorphic spectrum you place your character to avoid any unfortunate comic side-effects (or, if you are trying to write a cartoon, make sure you don’t underdo it and potentially create a boring character).

Phew!

Well, it had been my plan to write about other non-human characters such as aliens, robots and mythical creatures as well but I’m afraid that’s perhaps going to need another post! Be sure to swing back next week for that! In the meantime, why not get your notepad out and try your hand at knocking together an animal character or share your own insights in the comments section below.

Until next time!