They understand more than you think: what makes a good composition for youth
In “Thank You For Smoking,” during that one part of every movie when the whole world goes sour and the dejected protagonist is moping around back where he started, the tobacco lobbyist’s son asks him why he’s given up on his vocation. “You wouldn’t understand,” the lobbyist replies, but the boy does, and after receiving an appropriate castigation for his petulance, the man returns to doing his work in an excellent and hilarious manner.
“You wouldn’t understand.” I was a little angry to hear that line again, so I’m glad the film vindicated me. In compositions (books, TV, movies, &c) for adults, writers sometimes make the children more adult than they should be (Ruthie from “The Cosby Show” comes to mind). By and large, however, the artists are selling kids short. My eleven-year old cousin watches way too much TV per day, but I can’t remember the last time a TV show excited him in any way. Even if I were ten years old, most of today’s Nickelodeon would bore me. Pixar has been the only movie studio to hit them out of the park for some time now, and a world in which Captain Underpants is a bestseller is outside the Gates of Eden for sure.
Children’s entertainment doesn’t need to worry about going out of business. As long as Americans are having enough children (well, perhaps execs should worry), there will be a market. Also, as my friend Aaron noted, children are more accepting of works of lower quality. A kid is the contrary of a critic: everything’s new to him. As long as there are enough people running around expending energy, you can hold his attention. As long as there is enough advertising, you’ll make some money, as long as you aren’t rebuilding Noah’s Ark in order to make two poop jokes for every species or something. Given the inefficiencies of the industry, though, an artist with the proper touch can make a boatload of money and be remembered forever, whichever suits his motivation best. Just look at “High School Musical”: without breaking a sweat, it became an international sensation, and its soundtrack was somehow the best-selling album of 2006.
Orson Scott Card recounts that when he released Ender’s Game, a child psychologist wrote him and said that children would never act so competitive or so mature. “Maybe they don’t act that way around you,” he replied. Card respected the kids, and in return, the Ender series has insured he’ll never need a day job again.
Doug Ex Machina
When I was growing up, Nickelodeon had some great shows. I fondly remember “Rugrats,” “Pete & Pete,” and “Hey Arnold!”, which were entertaining while portraying youth in a realistic way. One program that makes me angry every time I think about it, though, is “Doug.” Yes, it had a great intro. I loved the way he wore the same outfit every single day. Quail Man was great, especially because I was always daydreaming about saving the world or getting the girl, myself. Skeeter, Patty Mayonnaise, Doug’s sister and dog, and even mean green Roger Klotz had their moments. It was the way Doug resolved his problems that killed me. For twenty minutes, he’d worry about his best friend moving away, or being lost in the woods, or his parents fighting, and then at the end he’d realize he’d misunderstood the circumstances, that everything was OK, and he shouldn’t have been worried at all. Doug had no agency. I guess we should be happy he was never seriously hurt, but in the real world, friends move away, police officers have to go out looking for young ones, and parents divorce. Doug often decided how to solve a problem, but he never had to follow through and face the negative consequences. Thanks for pretending to be about serious issues and then chickening out, man. You could have been so much more, but oh well. I hope college hasn’t been too rough on you.
Kodomo no Omocha: you wish this was your junior high
“Kodomo no Omocha,” a manga series following 6th-7th graders (last year of elementary and first years of junior high in Japan), is excellent because it takes the opposite route. It somehow successfully creates a light and humorous universe while dealing with a multitude of issues in an intelligent manner, from death of parents to first love to youth suicide. Much of the quality comes from the kids acting their age. They are surprisingly perceptive and amusingly awkward. They are flawed but not frustrating. I left junior high long ago, and I don’t burn to return, but I loved the series because it reminded me what that age was like. I only wish I’d known these kids when I was there. I plan to buy this title for my own children, and I recommend you give it a look as well.
Which brings me to Harry Potter
I will close with Harry Potter, not only because it’s the most popular youth work of this decade but also because the series’ development is quite relevant to this topic. Harry Potter became huge between the third book and the fourth. As The Goblet of Fire came together, J.K. Rowling announced to the world that she wanted to make each installment of the series darker and more mature than the last. She tried. It didn’t work.
Rowling portrayed pre-teens well. She understood their problems, their desires, their arguments, their sense of wonder. The Mirror of Erised was an eloquent expression of Harry’s yearning for a family, and the Dementors were an excellent symbol of depression, her best villains by far. Like “Kodomo no Omocha,” the first three books matched serious questions with a light tone. Sure, she turned up the heat at the end, but the story arcs felt natural, and the evil was appropriately secondary to the beauty and humor inherent to the world. What made the series for me were things like the clock in the Weasleys’ house which shows where all the family members are, Draco Malfoy’s “POTTER STINKS” pins, the Howlers in the mail, Fred and George’s inventions, and Gryffindor always winning the House Cup. Who doesn’t want to go to Hogwarts? It seems like the most fun school ever.
Rowling did a lame job with teenagers, though, and she abandoned the endearing details for hot, steaming helpings of plot plot plot. The romance felt like fanfiction. (Hopefully most people who get married have more chemistry than Harry and Ginny did.) When Harry got mad, he seemed more like an adult’s stereotype of a teenager than an actual teenager. It is possible to make an excellent character out of an angry youth, but it doesn’t involve having him say everything in capital letters. In the sixth book especially, the characters were bamboozled too easily, and they seemed less intelligent than they were in the first. The agency problem from “Doug” surfaced, as Dumbledore became more and more important when the kids should have taken center stage themselves. When Rowling went for gravitas, she sadly had to borrow from past works (The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Bible).
And how about the deaths? Before the book was released, most of the speculation I heard was about who would live and who would die. A sunny world with lightly sketched characters is no place for a war novel: how weird would it have been if Scooby Doo had found the mangled corpse of Shaggy inside the Mystery Machine? Yet that’s what broke out in Potter number seven. Only one of the fallen received a proper farewell, in my opinion. When Harry buried this person with his own hands, rather than resorting to magic, it was the most powerful scene in the novel. That scene showed how Harry Potter could have acquired more depth and maturity with age.
It all comes down to verisimilitude. It’s easy for a writer to work quickly, go for the simple answers, and base his characters on generalizations. To go back and capture a certain age, especially when one doesn’t have any comparable children in the house, requires both talent and humility. I hope our generation of writers will have enough of each so our descendants get some classics of their own.