Archive for the ‘Literary elements’ Category

The professor-archetype

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

Portrait of Professor Benjamin H RandHave you ever noticed that in some children’s literature, a professorial type male character is often included as a father-like figure to a gaggle of kids? He might even be the father.

This man is usually interesting to the reader because he seems oblivious to typical parental worries—he doesn’t throw up red flags of caution when the children experiment with dangerous tools, contraptions, or potions. He is unworried by their retellings of journeys into magical worlds or forests. He is non-plussed by their cheeky philosophy or their impolitely expressed opinions. He often accepts their fantastical tales with aplomb, barely registering alarm when they return from adventures riddled with danger, and shows a surprising capacity to believe the stories at face value.

This man-character doesn’t lecture children and sometimes, infuriatingly, doesn’t even give advice or warnings when they seem most merited. He, himself, might be engaged in his own mysterious doings and ponderings, which leave the children bewildered and impressed.

I think of characters like Professor Dumbledore (Harry Potter), Professor Kirke (Chronicles of Narnia), Professor Martin Penderwick (professor of botany, The Penderwicks), Merlin (The Sword and the Stone), Wayne Szalinski (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), Gandalf (Lord of the Rings series) and even the benign homesteading pioneer, Pa Ingalls (Little House series).

This archetype is an intriguing figure. Children gravitate to these men and I’ve been curious about why. I have a few hunches. It seems to me that children crave the experience of being taken seriously. They want their words to be weighed by adults and then found to be full of truth, sincerity, and importance. Even if children’s ideas or experiences could be explained away by an adult’s greater worldliness, children still hope to find in the adult they respect, an appreciation for the way they know the world so far.

These professor-like men uniformly respect a child’s grasp of the world they live in and they are appropriately engaged in their own battles and explorations so as not to be overly impressed by the children’s, either. These men’s lives are independent of whether or not the kids turn out, survive, or discover the same truths the professor-types take for granted.

Additionally, the professor-archetype believes he doesn’t know everything and is open to learning from any source, including the naive experiences of kids. This openness registers deeply with readers. It gives child-readers hope that the thoughts and feelings they have about the life they are living can find a kind, sympathetic, or at minimum, respectful audience in the adults they love and trust.

When I get worked up (wanting to cover all the bases, trying to protect my children from danger – even my adult children!, lecturing them from the vast-expanse of my more abundant failures and successes, disbelieving their reports because they don’t match what I’ve known to be true), I sometimes envision Professor Kirke and his wave-of-the-hand type attitude. He couldn’t be bothered explaining away Lucy’s experience of Narnia. If she reported it and she was trustworthy and we admit that there are things in the universe we do not yet know, there must be truth in Lucy’s report. End of story.

A profound respect for the truthfulness of children. Impressive.

When faced with my children’s inexperience and their youthful impulses, I have to resist the temptation to be a stodgy, know-it-all adult who fails to see magic and opportunity in a child’s point of view. I have to sometimes sit on my hands (which tend to do all the talking, lecturing, and waving) and let the perspective “ride”—let it run its course or express itself without restraint to hear the full-bodied nature of what it wants to say. I have to make room for what makes me uncomfortable.

I’m learning how to let risk be a part of a child’s (or young adult’s) exploration. I’m trying to hang back, talk less, and listen more. I want to be open, quieter, more curious, less case-closed.

I want to relate to my kids, believing that life is a better teacher than a lecture.

I want to respect their experiences without being a busybody about them.

It’s funny. This professor-archetype character is so popular with kids. They just love the surprise of an authority figure who would treat children as peers and invite them into real danger trusting them to their competencies, heart (valor), and goodwill—at least on the level of how they express their participation in the world around them, and how they understand their part in it.

These men (and women) make good role models for us. Don’t you think? Who are your favorite adults in children’s (or any) literature? What have you learned from them? I’m curious.

Cross-posted on facebook.

Image Portrait of Professor Benjamin H Rand by Thomas Eakins (1874)

Retelling: details or summary or both?

Monday, February 4th, 2013

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Great phone call today. Here’s the gist:

Mom: What do I do when my son retells the details of a book or movie or story, but he can’t tell me the overarching narrative that goes with it? Like he can’t say the main plot points. He rambles and gets caught up in details that are non-essential to the plot, but he tells them with so much accuracy and depth, I hate to stop him.

Her son is 11.

My response:
Adults summarize. They can pick out the main points and sequence them. They’ve read 1000s of stories, watched as many films, and are well aware of the narrative arc (plot diagram) by virtue of time on the planet and years logged reading/absorbing “story.”

Kids don’t have this background, and can’t summarize like you. They’re younger. Story is fresh for them. They are beguiled by subplots and character quirks and twists. They chase the shiny object called “weapons,” “cute puppies,” “sassy friends,” “weird creatures,” “magic spells” or “epic battles” and report all that is filling their imaginations to the brink of enthusiasm. When you ask them to tell you about the story, the most exciting, fascinating points overflow. They can’t “sort” the images and emotions. They aren’t likely to sequence events into the narrative arc. They retell the memorable moments, with detail, reliving them in front of you.

Of course, most adults have completely lost the ability to trap details to that extent. Our brains are too busy for detail. We save the important markers and ditch the quirky dialog or style of weaponry. Children can retell with amazing accuracy.. We have too many digits, words, experiences, memories, obligations in the way of uncluttered retelling. We hang onto the big picture and file it under “mental notecard” – as in, if asked, this is what I share.

Being able to summarize is a fairly sophisticated skill. It is possible to cultivate, but please don’t think it a superior skill to retelling in detail. For now, here’s how I want you to proceed:

Start by listening, really closely. Ask real questions that help you understand who, what, where, and when as the child relates the particular scene. You can jot down the responses on separate sheets of paper per scene or image or dialog. Keep these on a table in front of you. Ask for key details (names, places, why such-and-such happened).

Print a plot diagram (a simple one).

Then, with these notes in front of you both, ask some of these questions to help sort the information just shared:

1. Pick up one of the stories: Did this event happen at the beginning, or in the middle, or near the end of the story/film/book? Move the note you took to the right place on the table along the narrative arc. Do that for each of the scenes you’ve jotted down.

2. Ask the child what moment decided the outcome (the climax)? It may be difficult to identify the single one (there are lots of sub-plots in most stories). But the BIG one happens near the end. So direct your child’s attention to the end of the plot line. You can even discuss ones that were important along the way, but weren’t the final key determining factor. That’s a good conversation to have!

3. Talk about the characters. Which character is the most important to the story (without whom, there would be no story)? It’s usually obvious, but not always! The main character is called “the protagonist” and that is the one who is a part of the climax. We figure out who is important by how much we care about what happens to that character. A guide to identifying that character, then, is “Whose story do we care the most about?” Of course, your child may love a character in the subplot, but then you can expand backwards and say, “Who do you think the author wants us to care most about?” That will help differentiate.

4. Now talk about the antagonist (the character that wants to thwart the goal of the main character). Who stands to gain by interrupting the progress of the protagonist?

5. Lastly, ask about the events your child narrated to you. Are these related to the protagonist’s plight? Or are they about side-kick characters? If they are “side-kick characters,” we call these scenes part of the “sub-plot.” A sub-plot keeps the story interesting, adds detail to the main plot, and supplies a distraction or complication when the author needs one. Figure out whether the memorable scenes are plot or subplot.

Once you’ve collected this data, see if you can put it in a meaningful whole. You might narrate back to your child all the information you’ve collected and demonstrate what it means to put it in sequence. Once you’ve done that, you can ask your child to correct you, add to it, or try his/her own hand at it! Overtime, you can ask the child to take over and create the narration from this material from scratch.

What I hope you’ll take from this post:
Work with what your kids give you! Help them sort it out. Model what it looks like when it matches what you are hoping to hear. Then give them the chance to do it, with your help. Do not abandon your child to your expectations and then wring your hands when they fail. Teach! That’s your job and your privilege.

09 Interview with author Melissa Wiley

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

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Today’s podcast (podcast player at the bottom of this entry) features children’s author and home educator, Melissa Wiley.

Melissa and I met in 2005 online and instantly formed a wonderful connection around writing and homeschool. Her most recent children’s novel, The Prairie Thief, is the featured title for the October Arrow. You may purchase it here: The Prairie Thief at Amazon.com

 

Check out Melissa’s website and blog, too. Her blog, Here in the Bonny Glen, is a treasure trove of home education insight, poetry sharing, and reviews of her favorite children’s books. You might enjoy reading her entry titled “Hurrah for Brave Writer,” too.

I loved my conversation with Melissa so much, we rolled right by our usual 30 minute time limit and chatted for nearly an hour! I hope you enjoy getting to know Melissa as much as I have. We’re offering a special deal for the issue of The Arrow that goes with The Prairie Thief, which will be published on October 1, 2012.

If you’d like to purchase The Prairie Thief Arrow go here.

The Arrow is a monthly digital product that features copywork and dictation passages from a specific read aloud novel. It’s geared toward children ages 8-11 and is an indispensable tool for parents who want to teach language arts in a natural, literature-bathed context.

Surprise! No one teaches it.

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Ut-Oh....Image by Nadia Hatoum

In all the writing literature I have crammed between DVDs on my book cases, the one literary element that gets short shrift is: Surprise. I can’t find it—no chapters devoted to expounding its importance. Exercises for plot, dialog, essay format, poetic structure, yes. Surprise? Well, occasionally it gets a passing mention. But almost always it’s tied to some other element (like, powerful verbs should be surprising, or a thesis statement is best constructed in a “surprise reversal” format). But that’s not what I mean. I mean, writing is absolutely dependent on subverting reader expectations over and over and over again, to be considered powerful.

Surprise means bursting through the door unannounced with cookies and milk, just for the reader, right when energy flags and minds wander. I’m not talking about big plot twists or even hiding information only to reveal it later. I also mean surprising the reader with a fresh metaphor; casting a commonly known term into a new grammatical role; picking unusual proper nouns for characters, street signs, shops; starting the story in the middle of the action; saving your best argument for last in an essay; hooking the reader’s attention at the top of the paper and saving the resolution for the conclusion (hook and return); littering the writing with alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme and consonance… and so on.

The best writing is as dependent on generously ladled portions of surprise throughout its lasagna layers of meaning, imagery, cool logic and vivid language as middle-aged readers are on good lighting and corrective lenses!

What’s more, it can be taught! Part of what makes your young writers’ quirky, poorly spelled and punctuated early attempts at written communication so enjoyable is the way their view of the world surprises your jaded, middle-aged one. You “crack up” when they surprise you.

It’s not hard to be surprising, once you know where to hide before you pop out!

Let’s take a look at this mysterious little element and introduce our kids to it. (Psst! They love surprises, so this may be your own subversive way to get them from the couch to the kitchen table, too!)

The “personal experience metaphor” trick

The hardest thing to do is to create fresh comparisons (metaphors, similes, analogies). Readers are sick of the “tried and true,” “old as the hills,” “dry as toast,” cliches that have served since the Spanish-American war! To wake up your readers, take an old cliche and buy it a new outfit. Draw from contemporary experiences that are alive to your kids.

Example: Her body twisted and flipped like Play-Doh in the hands of my baby brother.

Example: He focused his attention like a gamer trying to find the secret passage on level 6 of Mario.

Example: My Mom is older than an Atari play station.

Example: The early bird may catch the worm, but in my house, the early homeschooler catches up on math left unfinished from the day before.

The “grammatical transformation” trick

When I say, “What part of speech is ‘couch’?”; you think ‘noun’.” Right? How about this: “Don’t couch your words in flattery when you talk to me, mister!” Suddenly this ho-hum noun takes charge of the whole sentence (and the offending party!). If you flip the grammatical use of a few words, on a regular basis, you keep your reader vertical and awake! Not only that, habitual meanings can be subverted by using verbs and nouns in unusual pairings. “Dinosaurs marinate in the earth.” Do they? Well, yeah, kinda! It makes you pause and reconsider your internal vision.

Example: Drew lego-ed the sticks together into a kind of backyard fort.

Example: The birds pinwheeled through the autumn sky.

Example: The solution became a schmear of peanut-buttering one side of the argument while jellying the other, until the two competing options were slammed together into a single sticky whole.

The “collecting crazy names” trick

Get a moleskin notebook—the kind that fits in a pocket, or a purse. When you’re driving around, pay attention to signs. Jot down interesting names. Look at billboards, freeway exits, stores and hotels. Record terms that will serve as good choices for your writing. Names of people can be gathered from Greek myths, the Norse Gods, fiction you are reading, TV shows, cartoons, comic books, Shakespeare plays, a directory of your homeschooling community. It really doesn’t matter how you gather them, but pay attention and collect when you are not writing. Then when you need one, pull it out!

An expert in the field of surprising name choices is none other than J.K. Rowling. Whatever you think about her books, her use of creative names is unmatched. She tells her readers she’s been keeping a little notebook for more than a decade where she jots interesting names to be used at a later date. When she’d create a new character, she’d flip through her book looking for the right name.

Example: There’s a reason Rowling has “Hermoine” paired with Harry and Ron. Much more interesting than “Mary” might have been.

Example: Shakespeare has great names like “Hero,” “Benedick,” “Ophelia,” and “Iago.”

Example: The Greek myths include epic names: “Persephone,” “Demeter,” “Agamemnon,” “Xanthe” and “Kallisto.”

This hunt for a good name applies not only to people, but to stores, cities, street signs, organizations, tournaments—all fiction depends on a slew of proper nouns carefully selected.

Example: Diagon Alley (play on words: diagonally)

Example: Island of the Blue Dolphins (using a Native American name)

Example: Camp Kooskooskoos (Trumpet of the Swan: funny to say)

So join the game! Make “naming” a joy, not a chore.

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