Last year, I read the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer. Looking back on that year of reading, I can’t exactly remember what I read, but I know the Enola Holmes series was on the top of that list.
This year, my favorite movie so far is Zootopia. I can remember more clearly the movies I’ve seen recently than I can the books I read last year, so I’m pretty sure in this statement: Zootopia is currently my favorite movie. (I’m seeing Captain America 3 pretty soon, though, so don’t hold onto that one.)
All in all, children’s stories make me happiest. Not just happy— not just pleased with life in general. Out of all the movies I watch, out of all the books I read, those written for children give me the most enjoyment. Why?
Guess #1: I’m a child.
Analysis: Definitely true. The more I’ve grown up, the more I’ve come to giggle at potty jokes, value running wild with no reason whatsoever, and cry at life’s problems. (Only half kidding on that last one.) Maybe children’s stories appeal to me because, deep down, I want to feel like a kid again. These stories bring into focus old ways of looking at the world, when it wasn’t so big and terrifying. It’s nostalgia.
Guess #2: I’m a writer.
Analysis: Also true. When I look at stories, I pick them apart to see how they work. You all know that. When I see a kid’s movie, I’m always astounded by how well they work— that is, when it’s a good movie. I enjoy the characters, I love the humor, and I love how it pulls on big kid emotions even with a little kid focus. That’s a more cognitive version of the first guess. I like the puzzle.
Kid’s stories appeal to my emotion in very specific ways— through nostalgia, yes, but also through engaging characters, humor, and captivating storytelling. They also appeal to my brain, showing off their layers of plot, social commentary, and humor. At the same time as my heart is overwhelmed by cute, my brain is overwhelmed by skill.
Here’s what I believe about stories. If you apply the tools, the emotions fall into place.
Sometimes, when you apply the emotions, you wind up using the tools without realizing it.
Stories like these become favorites because they hit that sweet spot of emotion. That emotion comes from using the tools just right, with a deft touch. The cognitive enjoyment is something I wouldn’t really get if I weren’t a writer— but the emotion is what makes it a favorite story.
So why are kid’s stories so packed with emotion? Why are they so funny, so clever, so whatever you want to call them?
It isn’t because the writers packed in the emotional punches, or fought to cram in the jokes. It isn’t because they planned each minute out to the second, with all the plot twists down pat. In short, it wasn’t good writing that got them here.
It was good editing.
That’s the thing about Enola Holmes books, or Boxcar Children, or The Familiars, or any of the children’s books I’ve loved over the years. They aren’t long. They’re powerful. If you look at your favorite children’s books, I’d think you’d find the same.
In the first half of a story, you introduce a lot of things that— who knows?— may never become useful to the book. It doesn’t matter. The reader is along for the ride and feels like they’re going places. Good editing takes those things that don’t seem to matter and turns them into dazzling plot twists (the thief who stole the magical earrings was the delivery man from the very first scene!), or tools the characters can use just in time (who knew Johnny would know exactly how to construct a makeshift bomb, just because of the failed chemistry experiment at the beginning!), or anything you want.
But those things that don’t seem to matter? They’re serving a purpose even at the beginning.
Especially in fantasy novels, but really in any genre, you want to paint a picture of a complete world without using too many brushstrokes. You want to show the tip of the iceberg and hint at what’s under the surface, so people take your word for it and don’t need a full encyclopedia of your universe. We see a couple costumes in Mos Eisley and assume, Wow, the Star Wars universe is enormous! That assumption gives the writers time to create whatever else they need.
The same goes for kid’s books. In the Boxcar Children, Gertrude Chandler Warner gave the impression that this was a real world, even though these kids all live on a defunct train. You go to the pet store and see a couple people from around town— maybe head over to the park and talk to the groundskeeper. What’s the name of the mayor’s undersecretary? We don’t know. But we assume, if it ever becomes important, that we’ll get to know that name.
We have faith that if it’s important, we’ll find out eventually. Funny thing— with good editing, every detail becomes important. (This leads to the assumption that you can pinpoint whodunit within the first quarter of the whodunit. But that’s a cognitive thing, and if you aren’t looking for it, you don’t see it.)
Here’s the point: children’s stories aren’t great because they’re simple. They might be short, they might be lighthearted, but simple? Think about it.
J.R.R. Tolkien painted the tip of his iceberg, then about twenty feet under the water to prove he had thought that far (and then wrote books detailing the rest of the iceberg, to prove that yes, he really had thought that far).
Kid’s stories have to paint the tip of the iceberg in about three strokes of the pen. Establishing a world for these stories happens very quickly. But those three strokes of the pen aren’t just painting the iceberg— they’re doubling up on character, plot, and setting. They aren’t simple. Everything works overtime, meaning it might have only ten puzzle pieces, but they fit together to form twenty different pictures.
Zootopia is, in my opinion, the perfect movie. The Enola Holmes books are, in my opinion, flawless books. They tug on the emotions by being technically perfect. They introduce their setting, their characters, and their plot economically. The jokes double up as character development. The setting details double up as clues. They paint an iceberg that we expect to be painfully detailed, but they have confidence that these three things will accomplish everything required and more.
Does economy of words and ideas come from writing, though? Does this splatter art of the mind that we perform on the blank page really come out as controlled and confident as an impressionist painting? Nah. That’s too much pressure for a first draft. This kind of perfection comes from editing.
Go write. You’re carving out a rough diamond. You’ll have time to cut it into something beautiful later.