More Notes on Writing for Children
We’ll no doubt soon be hearing about “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as we wander through the shopping malls in search of the perfect gift. By now he’s quite a legend.
And what happened to Rudolph? The very thing that the others mocked him for was the ticket that saved the day (or rather the night) and he became a much-lauded hero.
In the late 1960s the Irish Rovers recorded a modern spin on Rudolph. This song tells of a lonely little biplane in hangar #4. While the big jets come and go and look down their noses at him, there sits tearful Biplane Evermore. Snubbed. Redundant.
Then one foggy, rainy day an emergency call comes and “they could not wait; t’would be too late! Someone must fly tonight.” Since Evermore is expendable, he is sent out on the mission of mercy. “And as he rose into the storm the big jets hung their wings, and hoped someday like Evermore to do heroic things.”
Written by Martin Cooper as a lullaby poem, Biplane Evermore does have a nice moral tacked on at the end. (You could do that in the 60’s.)
“Do not be discouraged by circumstance and size;
remember Evermore and set your sights upon the skies.”
The theme of these two tales? Don’t make fun of people who seem odd or insignificant; their very difference may turn out to be the needed asset in a particular situation.
This theme is immensely popular because each of us can relate. We all feel “different” and looked-down on at times. It makes us feel good to know that we may have unique worth, that oddballs can save the day and become popular. (At least we hope it could work that way for us.)
“Once upon a time there were three little pigs who kissed their mother goodbye one day and left home to make their way in the world.” Each one built a house; each house was tested. The theme? One writer suggests “Brain over brawn” but by looking at it from different perspectives we could come up with several woven into this amusing tale.
Themes started with Adam & Eve. They touch us where we are: weak, fearful, snubbed, outdated, tempted. They show us that it pays to try harder, to be more willing or accepting, to hope for better days, to avoid sweet-talking snakes. They portray the importance of working at friendship, family, gentleness.
Remember the old sayings?
No pain no gain.
A stitch in time saves nine.
Don’t cross a bridge until you come to it.
Worrying about tomorrow spoils today.
If you want to have friends, you must be a friend.
A job that’s worth doing is worth doing well — as learned by the Three Little Pigs.
You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Never judge a book by its cover.
Don’t jump to conclusions.
The only victory worth having is the one that’s been honestly won.
Any of these can become the theme of a story.
“Love conquers all” is a popular theme of adult romances; there are a few children’s stories that illustrate this, too. Lassie Come Home is an old favorite that comes to mind. There’s the story of a boy working to save his beloved dog. In Don’t Take Teddy, love of a sibling is portrayed by the boy who took his Down’s Syndrome brother and ran away because he thought his parents were going to put the brother in a care home. (That story also points out that you should talk things over with your parents before you act rashly.)
Stories for young children often anchor on a “family togetherness” theme (The Pokey Little Puppy, Little Women) or “friends are fun” (Dick & Jane readers.) Some books demonstrate “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” like The Little Engine That Thought He Could.
We can choose a Bible theme:
If you ask Him in faith, God will help you;
You reap what you sow;
Be sure your sin will find you out;
A word fitly spoken will bear good fruit;
A soft answer turneth away wrath.
The proverbs of Solomon are full of potential themes.
Don’t expect to get very far with secular editors though. The Bible addresses the evil in man’s heart; the secular world believes we’re born good and will make good choices if we’re not warped somehow.
Amusement or lesson, what is your objective? You needn’t have a theme in mind when you start out but you do have a reason for telling the story. Themes tend to emerge as the writer incorporates her own values into the tale: your protagonist frowns upon some behavior, chooses other, feels good or bad about some things she’s done.
The main character’s desired goal and the means he uses to achieve it often sets the theme. Should he cheat to pass the exam or risk failing?
You let the reader discover along with the protagonist why cheating doesn’t pay, why using poor materials to construct a house can lead to disaster, how keeping silence when you know the truth lets injustice prevail and the innocent suffer (To Kill A Mockingbird) or how gossiping can lead to the loss of a valuable friend.