Experimentation in Juvenile Literature

| Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Today's Tune: Right On

In 2010, I had the amazing experience of attending the SCBWI Summer Conference. Three activity-filled days during which I got up very early in the morning (despite not being a morning person) and hung out with a lot of new people (despite being pretty shy. I KNOW RIGHT.). Food, and parties, and keynotes, and lots of authors and illustrators I admire very much.

One of my favorite breakout sessions from that conference was M.T. Anderson's workshop on experimentation in children's literature. First, M.T. Anderson is a brilliant and hilarious man, and second, so many of his points have stuck with me.

As adults, we've fallen into set patterns. We believe the world works a certain way, we've cemented most of our ideological views, and we know what we like. We know what literature is "supposed" to look like, either because we've studied it in school for a very long time, or because we've read enough to believe we know how words are supposed to form a story.

Literature for children and teens is a whole different playing field. Young people are still relatively new to the world. They haven't had certain lessons hammered into them over and over quite yet, and they haven't become set. They're still learning, still malleable. This is where experimentation comes in. All of those weird writing quirks that adults scoff at as pretentious or weird are fuel for young minds. They don't have to read a story linearly. They don't balk at the author speaking to them directly. They're okay with a story told in alternating text and images. Strange words, whimsy, playing with font and text decoration, lyrical style, verse, rich metaphor... all of these things are fair game.

I mean, think about this for a second. The blank page of a kidlit or YA book is a canvas that you can paint any way you want, and that's okay! You can go nuts and experiment with all those wacky ideas living inside your brain. Naturally not everything that comes out is going to be good, but that's part of the fun. It's worth the misfires to land on that golden experiment that takes your writing to a new level.

Note that when I say "weird writing quirks," I don't mean slapping whatever down on the page and calling it good. I'm talking about taking risks and thinking outside the box. "Experimental" literature is not like those "experimental" films you see that are just shots of someone humping a dead bear in a Captain Kirk mask. The goal isn't to throw something together and call it art. The goal is to skillfully and intentionally try new things to convey your story in an interesting way. The goal is to play. That's one of the joys of creating literature for young people... it allows us the freedom to play.

So let your imagination go. Think of all the different ways you can convey emotion, imagery, and dialogue. Browse Tumblr for a while. Tumblr's a great place to see the way people incorporate various media into comprehensive stories. Images, video, sound, text. With the rise of ebooks, these elements may even find a place in professional storytelling.

This is the perfect place to start letting your readers know that their entertainment doesn't have to fit in a neat little box.


{ Andrew Leon } at: March 14, 2012 at 10:58 AM said...

My first edition of House had sections that broke from the narrative with the children arguing with each other, basically, as they told the story. The kids that I was reading to at the time loved those parts. Posibly, those were the favorite parts. Eventually, though, I took those out, because adults didn't like them. I've found this to be very interesting. One day, I may re-release the version with the arguing, but, for now, I need the book to be appealing to kids -and- to adults, so they stay out. It's interesting to me, though, how less flexible adults are than children.

{ We Heart YA } at: March 14, 2012 at 11:59 AM said...

Yes yes yes! This is why we're drawn to "juvenile" literature too! And sometimes we wonder if agents are forgetting that when they give people feedback about how their books are too "quirky" or "unmarketable" or whatever. Because hey, teens aren't worried about that stuff. They just want a good, compelling story.

{ Old Kitty } at: March 14, 2012 at 1:27 PM said...

Humping a dead bear in a Captain Kirk mask!??!

I think you're onto something there! LOL!

Oh but seriously!! Yay for young minds and writing for them! Take care

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: March 14, 2012 at 5:28 PM said...

Andrew - It's really fascinating to see the gap between what kids like and what adults like. I mean, just because a child likes something isn't necessarily a barometer of whether or not it's GOOD, which is important to keep in mind, but I do think we lose some of that experimental creativeness and acceptance as we get older. Which is sad.

We Heart YA - I think for the most part, agents and editors really do know what they're talking about in terms of what will sell. But there's no doubt that there's a certain element of safety at play, too. When you take on something highly experimental, you're taking a big risk. Could be awesome, could be awful. I think it's a good idea for authors to establish a reader base and sales record before they start trying to throw out something super wacky. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't always be playing!

Thanks Kitty, lol ;)

{ Brooke R. Busse } at: March 14, 2012 at 6:36 PM said...

It is always strange for me to read these posts about teen mentality or emotions. It makes me feel out of self, or like I'm being sort of generalized...

That is not to say that I don't agree with your post. I personally love quirky things. I love differences though. Especially in people.

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