Michael Chabon on storytelling for kids

Unfortunately, this isn’t a speaker announcement, so don’t get too excited (although he would be my fantasty speaker if I could afford his fees and airfare…)

I’m currently reading Michael Chabon‘s Maps and Legends, which is a fantastic collection of his essays and factual work, and last night read ‘Kids’ Stuff’, a short piece (based on his speech at the 2004 Eisner Awards) asking why kids don’t read comics anymore. As someone interested in commissioning for kids, and thinking about the kind of stories they like to immerse themselves in, the whole piece rung true, and gathered up lots of threads of thinking that have cluttered my head over the last 6 months. The whole collection is worth reading, but I’ll post two extended excerpts – the first on how we often use competition for attention as an excuse for being brave in our storytelling; and the second on how we should approach storytelling for children (NB – the quotes are from the transcript of the Eisner lecture, so slightly different from the published essay):

“A lot of publishers will tell you that there’s too much competition for the kid dollar these days, and that comics will inevitably lose out to video games, sfx-laden films, the Internet, etc. I’m sorry, I know there’s some truth to the claim, but I just don’t buy it. I think it’s a cop out. And I think it’s typical of our weird naïveté about how sophisticated we are vis a vis our parents and grandparents, the sense of retrospective superiority we tend to display toward the them and their vanished world, as if there has not always been tons of other cool stuff for a kid to spend his or her time and limited funds on besides comic books. In the early days of comics, in fact, unlike now, there was all kinds of stuff to do that was not only fun and exempt from adult supervision but absolutely free. And there is no competition like free.”

“So, how do we make great comic books for kids?

I guess I have one concrete suggestion in that regard, which I’ll get to in a minute. First I have a few general principles. I have drawn these principles in part from my memories of the comics I loved when I was young. But I think they hold true as well for the best and most successful works of children’s literature.

1) Let’s not tell stories that we think “kids of today” might like. That is a route to inevitable failure and possibly loss of sanity. We should tell stories that we would have liked as kids. Twist endings, the unexpected usefulness of unlikely knowledge, nobility and bravery where it’s least expected, and the sudden emergence of a thread of goodness in a wicked nature, those were the kind of stories told by the writers and artists of the comic books that I liked. The first two, very generally speaking, you tended to find more often at DC; the second two at Marvel.

2) Let’s tell stories that, over time, build up an intricate, involved, involving mythology that is also accessible, comprehensible, at any point of entry. The intricacy, the accretion of lore over time should be both inventive and familiar, founded in old mythologies and fears but fully reinterpreted, reimagined. It will demand, it will ache, to be mastered by a child’s mythology-mastering imagination. The accessibility will come from our making a commitment to tell a full, complete story, or a complete piece of a story, in every issue. This kind of layering of intricate lore and narrative completeness was a hallmark of the great Superman family books.  I think it’s a trait also shared by the Potter books, the Lemony Snicket books, and many others.

3) Let’s cultivate an unflagging readiness as storytellers to retell the same stories with endless embellishment. Anybody who thinks that kids get bored by hearing the same story over and over again has never spent time telling stories to kids. The key, as in baroque music, is repetition with variation. Again the Mort Weisinger-edited Superman books, written by unflagging storytellers like Edmond Hamilton and the Otto Binder, were exemplary in this regard. The proliferation of theme-and-variation there verges, at times, on sheer, splendid madness.

4) Let’s blow their little minds. A mind is not blown, in spite of whatever Hollywood seems to teach, merely by action sequences, things exploding, thrilling planetscapes, wild bursts of speed. Those are good things. But a mind is blown when something you always feared but knew to be impossible turns out to be true; when the world turns out to be far vaster, far more marvelous or malevolent than you ever dreamed; when you get proof that everything is connected to everything else, that everything you know is wrong, that you are both the center of the universe and a tiny speck sailing off its nethermost edge.

Okay, now we get to my one concrete suggestion. If it seems a little obvious, or has already been tried, forgive me. But I can’t help noticing that in the world of children’s literature, an overwhelming preponderance of stories are stories about children. The same is true of films for children: the central characters are nearly always a child, a pair, or a group of children. Comic books, however, even those theoretically aimed at children, are almost always about adults, or teenagers. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?  Maybe somebody should try putting out a truly thrilling, honestly observed and remembered, richly imagined, involved and yet narratively straightforward comic book for children, about children.”

That just about sums up the kind of storytelling I want to get behind. Lets blow their little minds…