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The Evolution of Middle-Grade Fantasy and Television


NOTE: I drafted this on my computer while I had power at a local café, but I’m posting it from home on my cell phone. As a result, some of my formatting may have gotten messed up. If so, I apologize: I’ll fix it as soon as I have power and Internet at home.

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of cartoons. Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Inspector Gadget…the list goes on. Thanks to Netflix, I’ve started re-watching many of these shows, but I find that it is hard to re-capture my childhood appreciation. Most did not age well (or maybe I haven’t), but it is somewhat saddening to see stories I loved as a kid come off as puerile now. Interestingly, the books I read as a child do not suffer from the same problem. Why are the shows I watched at eight or nine unwatchable now, but the books I read at the same age still enjoyable? Have I just become some sort of egg-headed curmudgeon (obviously I have, but is that the cause?), or is there something different about these stories that affects their longevity?

Since Hurricane Irene knocked out our power for the last couple of days, I’ve had nothing to do but think about this while twiddling my thumbs by candlelight. And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: what sets timeless middle-grade fiction apart from the cartoons from the ’80s and early ’90s is the evolution of character and moral ambiguity.

The Quest Structure and Character Evolution in Middle Grade Fiction

Much of the middle-grade fantasy I read as a child (Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time Quintet, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising) relied on the standard portal/quest structure. The youthful hero/ine has to leave home, find something, and return.

A screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender showing Zuko.

Prince Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender, via Wikipedia

Their physical quest mirrors an evolution of their characters. As they progress through the various stages of their adventure, the characters are naturally changed by their experiences. Edmund Pevensie, in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, starts as a resentful, selfish child. His exposure to the White Witch’s evil changes him, as do his attempts to earn his siblings’ (and Aslan’s) forgiveness. At the end of the book, bratty little Edmund Pevensie ultimately becomes “Edmund the Just.”

In Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, Taran learns that adventure is not the rollicking good time he supposes, and that heroes must make difficult choices.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg develops self-confidence and self-value through realizing that although she lacks her siblings’ more obvious gifts, her capacity for love ensures a central place within her family.

While adult readers might deride the portal/quest fantasy structure as trite, its ability to harmonize the characters’ emotional journey with their physical adventure continues to make it resonate. The key to that resonance, particularly for young readers, is how compelling the characters are. If the characters are uninteresting, no kid will ever enjoy the book. If those characters do not change, then young readers will rapidly outgrow the story (if they ever get into it at all).

Character Evolution in Cartoons

This kind of character evolution is distinctly absent from cartoons of the ’80s. At the time, cartoons were often made to sell toys, and by their very nature were more open-ended: the writers had to keep the story going until the show got cancelled. This presents its own storytelling challenges, and as a consequence, each episode tended to be a self-contained story arc, while the series as a whole had only the loosest overall structure. Typically a shows’ latter seasons – when the creators saw their series nearing the end of its viability – would often feature multi-episode or season-spanning plots which the creators hoped would finish a story. Yet despite this “innovation” in storytelling, each episode still needed to be self-contained, and characters never evolved greatly from one episode to the next. The Donatello we meet in the first episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the same Donatello ten seasons later: his experiences over the ten years of show continuity have not introduced any changes into the character’s personality or values.

When we look at more modern cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender, we see an entirely different structure at work. First and foremost, the story is no longer open-ended. The show’s creators set out to tell a story in three parts. There was never an intention to keep the show going through ten years of storytelling. Avatar The Last Airbender is similar to much middle-grade fiction in that it retains a quest structure at its macro-level and focuses on an over-arching conflict between our heroes and a “Dark Lord” villain. However, as in all cartoons, each episode remains a self-contained adventure within the confines of the broader story.

I believe that this innovation is enormously significant in terms of televised animated storytelling. Thanks to its structure, Avatar The Last Airbender is able to introduce character arcs that parallel the story’s plot arc. Over the story’s three seasons, we can watch Aang mature and take on his responsibilities as the Avatar, Sokka grow into the capable warrior he dreams of being, and Katara master water-bending and come to terms with her feelings for Aang. Each of the principal characters gradually grows and changes over the course of the show’s three seasons, which ultimately makes the series’ conclusion all the more satisfying.

Villainy in Middle-Grade Fiction and Cartoons

Another key difference lies in how “classic” cartoons portray their villains. The portal/quest fantasy has often been mocked for its stereotypically irredeemable “Dark Lord” (for a hilarious send-up, I strongly recommend Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel). And both middle-grade novels and cartoons feature this trope.

The Dark Lord’s goals tend to be suitably grandiose: take over the world/universe/whatever. But while the Dark Lord is portrayed as irredeemable and morally abhorrent, our heroes rarely face him until the final battle. Instead, their direct opposition usually comes from the Dark Lord’s lackeys, who are more complex characters serving the Dark Lord for their own (less inscrutable) reasons. Their goals are more localized: gain temporal power, get the respect they think they deserve, etc.

Whether it is Alexander’s Queen Archen, Cooper’s Walker, or Lewis’ Edmund Pevensie, the Dark Lord’s helpers are shown to actively make choices that align themselves with evil. Unlike the Dark Lord, their evil is never a given: they choose it for themselves. But in “classic” cartoons, the Dark Lords’ lackeys are just as irredeemably evil as their master. Whether we are talking about the Thundercats’ Slythe, the Decepticon Starscream, or Cobra’s The Baroness, the front-line villains have no depth; their motivations are rarely explored.

Moral Ambiguity in Today’s Cartoons

Fast forward twenty years, and you find an entirely new generation of cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender and the Cartoon Network’s reboot of Thundercats. Today, the irredeemable evil of the villain and the unquenchable goodness of the “good guys” is far more flexible.

Consider the rebooted Thundercats: in the first episode, we learn that the Thundercats have been repressing the dogs and lizardmen for generations. While our hero, Lion-O might oppose this level of repression, “the good guys” are generally depicted as racists. Or consider Avatar The Last Airbender. In the first episode, we learn that the Fire Nation has waged a century-long war of subjugation against the other nations, slaughtering an entire race (the Airbenders) in an unprecedented genocide. Within the first season, though, we learn that both this genocide and the war-torn century are a result of the Avatar (theoretically our hero) running from his responsibilities.

None of the “classic” cartoons from the ’80s would ever have explored a theme as morally ambiguous as Aang’s rejection of responsibility. Instead, each of these shows had to end with a moralistic “lesson” portrayed through the dénoument: remember those “knowing is half the battle” sequences at the end of GI Joe episodes? Such an externally-imposed mandate makes morally ambiguous storytelling difficult, if not impossible.

But middle-grade fiction has always had this type of moral ambiguity. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie betrays his siblings to the White Witch in exchange for promises of power and Turkish Delight. More recently, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is a thief and kidnapper who performs morally abhorrent acts with (it turns out) noble intentions. Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm wrestle with the right-and-wrong of trapping all magical Everafters in a small rural town, and their friend is the Big Bad Wolf – a villain struggling with his past crimes. Susan Cooper’s Walker shows us that the “good guys” might not always do good, and that they too can betray – or seemingly betray – their friends. None of this even touches upon Rowling’s Harry Potter books, with the moral ambiguity of Snape, Dumbledore, and Tom Riddle.

Avatar The Last Airbender probably offers us the most powerful example of how contemporary cartoons can treat villainy: when the series opens, Prince Zuko is the heroes’ primary opposition, and we watch him hunt the Avatar with intense zeal. However, by the end of the first season we understand that Zuko struggles through his relationship with his father (Fire Lord Ozai, the “Dark Lord” of the series) and with his own moral compass, personified by his Uncle Iroh. While Zuko represents the primary threat against the heroes, he is forced him into chasing the Avatar, and though we may not agree with his motives we at least understand them. His portrayal as an almost-sympathetic character makes his evolution that much more satisfying, as over the course of the three seasons we watch him gradually change from being the Dark Lord’s lackey to being one of the story’s principal heroes.

What are the Implications for Children’s Storytelling?

I think Avatar The Last Airbender, with its moral ambiguity and even-handed character arcs makes for innovative children’s storytelling, irrespective of medium. Avatar The Last Airbender’s treatment of Prince Zuko would be the equivalent of Queen Archen or the Horned King switching sides, and I have not seen much middle-grade fantasy take moral ambiguity to such lengths (though Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy – which may or may not be considered middle-grade – comes very close, and Joseph Delaney tries for it in The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch). The creators of the Thundercats reboot openly discuss wanting to make a darker, more cinematic story than the original cartoon (although Cartoon Network’s Friday at 8:30pm timeslot for the show might suggest they are aiming for an older audience). Personally, I think all of this represents an opportunity for writers of middle-grade and cartoons.

The success of Avatar The Last Airbender proves that the middle-grade audience enjoys complex storytelling, with extended character arcs and moral ambiguity. While some might say that shows like that are “too much for kids,” I could not disagree more: by blending childish adventure with more serious storytelling, they are doing what children’s literature has always done: helping kids develop a vocabulary with which to internalize and articulate a morally complex world.

In a real sense, I think this represents the gradual accrual of wisdom. If – thanks to more morally ambiguous middle-grade fiction or morally-challenging cartoons – kids are able to recognize, understand, and internalize a more complex world, then I think this can only be good. Doesn’t it suggest that kids are growing wiser sooner? And from a more crassly commercial standpoint, it also opens up “children’s” stories for an audience entirely outside of its intended demographic.

Who says grown-ups can’t enjoy good kids’ stories, anyway?

Recommended Blog Posts Works Mentioned
If you enjoyed this blog post, here’s a list of others that are on related subjects which you might find interesting:

Since I talk about a lot of different authors and titles in this post, here’s a list for your enjoyment. I’ve included some titles that don’t get mentioned directly, but which you might find fun/interesting:

Books:

REVIEW: Second Sight by Cheryl Klein


Second Sight by Cheryl Klein Title: Second Sight
Author: Cheryl Klein
Pub Date: March 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A strong reference compilation on writing from an experienced children's book editor.

Several years ago, The Professor (my fiancée) introduced me to children’s book editor Cheryl Klein’s blog, where I discovered several years’ worth of thoughtful, analytical, and insightful talks she has given on the craft of writing and its intersection with the craft of editing. Having found her thoughts interesting, I was excited to learn that Klein is now releasing a self-published, crowd-funded (via Kickstarter) book on writing entitled Second Sight. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a review copy not too long ago, and found it be challenging, insightful, and professional in all the right ways. This is a book for people seriously interested in writing as both a craft and a career: people looking for touchy-feely encouragement or platitudes on the “writing life” need not apply.

From my perspective, this is high praise. What I look for in books on writing is a serious discussion of the techniques used to construct effective, powerful, and publishable fiction. Whenever I read a new book on writing, I am always comparing it to the books on my “Writing on Writing Shelf,” which is primarily stocked with classics like E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ayn Rand’s (very different) The Art of Fiction, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Klein’s Second Sight is like these excellent books in many ways.

Second Sight demands a modicum of pre-existing knowledge. Someone still struggling to grasp the basics of writing (figuring out what a plot is, understanding the difference between point of view and voice, etc.) will likely find this book intimidating. An intermediate writer (as I like to consider myself) – who has been working at the craft for several years, who has a finished (though not yet published) novel or two under their belt, and who is looking for helpful ways to think about technique – will derive a lot of value from this book.

Like Forster, Gardner, and Rand, Klein flits effortlessly between the high-concept philosophy of writing (the nature of fiction, the nature of art) and the gritty reality of constructing a working novel (building point, character, plot, and voice). It is clear in reading this book that Klein has thought long and hard about what constitutes good writing, and what criteria to apply when judging the written word. However, unlike E.M. Forster, or John Gardner, (and certainly unlike Ayn Rand) Second Sight is far less didactic.

Reading Le Guin’s, Forster’s, or Gardner’s works on writing, I am often reminded of looking at a skyscraper. In Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, he takes 192 pages to walk us through the six pillars on which all novels rest. Each chapter builds on those that precede it to concisely outline the author’s vision of The Novel, like one floor resting atop another. This kind of writing on writing provides immense value, but it is by its very nature broad: it speaks in generalities from a hundred stories above the ground, glossing over many challenging aspects of writing. But if reading Forster is like looking at a finished skyscraper, reading Klein is like looking over an architect’s shoulder.

When I finish classic books on writing, I am often left with a feeling of “Whoa,” as my perception of The Novel has changed. Reading Klein cover to cover doesn’t produce that response. Instead, each chapter of Klein’s book leaves me with a smaller sense of “Neat!” that shifts my thinking on a particular facet of the craft. I wouldn’t be able to swallow a book like this in one or two sittings. In the two or three months that I’ve had my review copy, I’ve found that I would read a chapter or two, put it aside, and then return to it repeatedly when running into tough spots in my own writing. And that is its primary value: as a helpful tool for the dedicated writer struggling with the minutia of craft.

The primary meat of this book is framed by practicalities. It opens with a series of brief philosophical musings on the nature of good writing, and then dives right into the process of finding a publisher. That fact alone should tell you that this isn’t a book for someone who has never written anything. However, those early chapters are beautiful for their simple, straightforward discussion of the publishing process. The annotated query letters (one “from hell” and one which “gets it right”) are excellent, providing real-world lessons that can be applied by anyone intending to pitch editors or agents.

The middle of the book consists of independent chapters on various aspects of writing. The subjects range from a working definition of young adult literature, to techniques for constructing picture books, to the relationship between plot and emotion. There are commonalities across all of these sections, but they are not structured – and should not be read – as laying out a dialectical argument. Instead, they are insightful musings on varied aspects of writing, which may be relevant to some readers some of the time…but not to everyone, and not always.

It is only as she approaches the end of the “meaty” section that Klein veers into a Forster-esque mode of outlining a “theory of the novel.” Captured in a sixty-four page quartet of chapters (with their own introduction), Klein discusses what she considers the pillars on which a novel rests: point, character, plot, and voice. While these chapters are insightful and valuable, they represent the book’s one structural weakness: up to this point, the chapters all provided valuable insight without relying on the other chapters. Diving into the quartet on page 186, with its concomitant shift in structure and tone, struck me as inconsistent with the rest of the book’s structure. Without a doubt, the quartet deserves a place in this book, and I understand the difficulty Klein likely had in figuring out how to get it to fit. However, I suspect it could have benefited from either an alternative placement (perhaps earlier in the book, amidst the more “philosophical” chapters), or a better lead-in. But despite the inconsistency in structure and approach, the quartet – and the other independent chapters – still provide great value.

The last third of the book returns us to the brutal reality of revising a finished work. Her chapter on twenty-five revision techniques is immensely practical, the type of bare bones heavy lifting that every author should do, but that nobody likes to think or talk about. This section is immediately applicable to anyone who has finished a written work (of any length), and is now embarking on the revision process. The concrete advice given here clearly stems from years of editing books as a career. No shortcuts are given, no platitudes are offered: writing is hard work, and Klein lays out a series of techniques to produce higher quality work.

Second Sight is unlike most of my writing library. In general, that library consists of books that either try to lay out an all-encompassing theoretical framework (Forster, Gardner, Rand), analyze critical genre theory (Mendelsohn, Clute, Suvin), or exhaustively detail a particular facet of writing (Card, Kress, Propp). Some of the books in my library are well worn: the books I return to frequently as I think about my own writing. Since getting my review copy of Second Sight, it has never left my desk. It doesn’t answer the question of “What is The Novel?” but it does answer the question “What goes into an effective novel?” And for someone working on writing new works while revising what they have already written, I suspect this is the most important question.

NOTE: As I mention above, Second Sight is a self-published book, and can be ordered from Cheryl Klein’s web site at: http://cherylklein.com/buying-second-sight. Also, be sure to check out her great blog.

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