The Idiocracy of Writing for Children

(As originally seen on Book Blather: http://bookblatherblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/dragons-witches-and-bill-allen.html)

As a writer, I spend a great many hours observing the world around me. (Btw, if this is my boss reading this, I’m talking about my free time, of course.) During all of that time observing, I am often reminded of the 2006 movie, “Idiocracy.” Not familiar with the film? It involves a dim-witted man (played by Luke Wilson) who wakes up after 500 years of suspended animation, only to find that society has been so dumbed down over time that he is now the smartest man on Earth.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But then why does the box for my frozen pizza tell me to remove the plastic wrapper before heating it in the oven? And why does the booklet for my electric hairdryer say not to operate it in the shower? Call me crazy, but when the housing on my lawnmower tells me not to reach underneath while the blade is spinning, how much more of a stretch is it to believe that one day plants will stop growing because we’ve been feeding them energy drinks instead of water?

My point? (Surprising how often I’m asked that question, but this once I actually do have one.) It’s hard to keep young readers reading, especially boys. Enter what I call “gross boy humor.” Somewhere along the line, authors admitted that nothing amuses a ten-year-old boy more than a good belch or a silent-but-deadly gas attack. Now, it’s been a while since I laughed hysterically over a bout of projectile vomiting, but I have to admit I have read some great “gross boy books” that do accomplish the seemingly impossible. They make kids laugh and keep them reading. And if the authors can slip in a good lesson while the kids are distracted, all the more power to them. The question I wonder is this: Are we fueling the idiocracy of society?

Normally my answer to these type of questions is a rousing “No!” but remember, I started off by saying I spend a lot of time observing the world around me, and one thing I have observed lately is the number of twenty-something men who still find gross bodily functions hysterical. Has it always been that way? Admittedly I’m a bit past the twenty-something stage in life. Ah, hell, those years are barely visible from here, but as I recall, my appreciation of a good fart had pretty much faded by the end of my teens. So, could there be another way to keep boys reading? After all, the Harry Potter series remained nearly free of bodily functions for seven books, and J. K. Rowling didn’t seem to have trouble reaching readers.

So how can we keep them reading? When I started my Journals of Myrth series, I was going for that “Bob Newhart” feel. Please tell me you remember the “Bob Newhart Show,” or at least “Newhart.” These two hysterical sitcoms had one thing in common: Bob was the only sane person in a world of zany madness. Likewise, in How to Slay a Dragon, when his name is mentioned in a prophecy about slaying dragons, twelve-year-old Greg Hart finds himself the only sane person in a foreign land called Myrth. Obviously there’s been a mistake–Greg couldn’t expect to win a fight against one of the smallest girls at school–but that doesn’t keep everyone on Myrth from believing he will succeed. After all, no prophecy has ever been wrong before.

Along with the absurd situation and characters, I threw in a bunch of word play, puns and (hopefully) witty dialog that I thought both kids and adults would enjoy. Did it work? Well, the kids who have written me seem to share a common thought: “I loved this book! I’ve NEVER READ ANYTHING LIKE IT!” Okay, that last part could be good or bad, but I’m taking it as their plea for more sophisticated humor.

So, now I’m on to a new series with another twelve-year-old character, Orson Buggy. He’s not a hero, nor does anyone expect him to be. He’s just a normal kid trying to survive the seventh grade while everything that can go wrong around him does. Again, with this series I try to keep kids laughing with absurd situations and the humorous inner dialog buzzing around inside Orson’s head. Am I saying Orson will never have an inappropriately timed gas attack? No. I’m not hiding from reality, after all. But if he ever does, you can bet it will be crucial to the story. And regardless of the style of humor, just like with the authors of those “gross boy humor” books boys love, my main goal is to make kids laugh and keep them reading. Oh, and if I can slip in a good lesson while they’re distracted, all the better for me and them.

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