March 25, 2011

A Role to Play

Books for adults deal with kids in various ways. Kids can be just part of the landscape, or (worse) stereotyped. Very minor characters don’t need an arc, but perhaps it’s good to remember that every character has one, even if it’s not part of this story, this plot. As I’ve thought about the way kids were treated in adult stories, the word “roles” came to mind. And that led me to the way TV series develop kids for an adult or family audience.

From a Distance. The Wonder Years ran from 1988 to 1993. Each episode was narrated by a voice outside the story action. The adult Kevin looked back on his life in the 1960s. He watched the boy he was go through the experiences, not too clever, not too cute, and not narrating from his conclusions in a way that minimized the struggle. The truth of the experience that the adult Kevin realized grew out of the boy Kevin’s dealing with it. There was a sense of discovery.

Laugh Track. Everybody Loves Raymond ran from 1996 to 2005. In the first season’s title sequence, Raymond said, “It’s not really about the kids.” And it wasn’t. Occasionally, Ally, Michael, and Geoffrey had real-life situations to deal with. Even there the focus seemed to be on the parents struggle to deal with issues, and the humor in that. The emphasis wasn’t on the character arc—the featured kid taking control of life—growing and changing.

Integrated in the Story. The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, did that for me, create that arc for each kid throughout the series and the featured kid within an episode. There was such a subtle, playful, honest humor. And great interplay with the large cast of kids of various ages: Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa, Rudy. The show tackled serious themes: Theo’s dyslexia, Denise’s friend’s pregnancy. Age appropriate issues for each of the kids, specific, real-life situations, character growth. The episodes showed as well the parents dealing with the kids and learning from them.

I’ll Fly Away, which had only a short run from 1991 to 1993, had this same sense of integration and respect for the kid characters. Set in an unnamed southern state in the late 1950s, the episodes are narrated by the black housekeeper Lily for a white district attorney. His son and daughter play roles in the plot as well as Lily’s daughter. These kid characters do not have the same focus as the Cosby kids do. But they work well in the story situations that involve them.

As you work with authors including kid characters in their adult works, identify the role the kid seems to be playing in relation to the plot and the other characters. A throw-away part? Just for laughs or window dressing? Does that work in the story? Is there still an honesty? Does what action and motivation there is “ring true”? For bigger roles, the need for honesty and integrity is much more demanding.

Whose POV? Should the kid be the point of view character? Or share the point of view? You’ll find varying treatments in these novels, all with well-drawn kid characters. As you consider your own reading list in this light, you’ll find many others.

The Weight of All Things, by Sandra Benitez. Nine-year-old Nicolas is the viewpoint character, and his struggle to find his mother (after she is killed while with him during the funeral of Archbishop Romero) leads him from danger into danger as he is assisted by his grandfather and other adults through the conflict in El Salvador.

Evening News, by Marly Swick. The dissolution of a family after nine-year-old Teddy accidently shoots and kills his baby stepsister is told through alternating viewpoints, Teddy’s and his mother’s.

The Way the Crow Flies, by Ann-Marie MacDonald. The greater portion of the book involved Madeleine’s experience as an eight-year-old dealing with sexual abuse and a classmate’s death. The latter portion of the book jumps to her adult life, and for this reader, the childhood scenes felt like backstory. I longed to know the adult.

Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley. The omniscient narrator of this story traces ten-year-old Jim and the mother and family of uncles who raise him. It’s their story as it’s his story. 

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