One of the great things about being an adult reading children’s books to children is seeing their reaction to the stories they hear. It’s something of a paradox that most people who write or draw for children are grown-up – this discrepancy between ages doesn’t tend to happen, to my knowledge, in other areas of fiction – and it’s a topic that we touched upon at times in my MA in Children’s Literature. This is why it takes a truly exceptional author to be attuned to what children want to read about and the kind of language that works best.
Most of the books I read aloud to the children at school hit the spot but I came across one the week before last that didn’t sit right – with me or them. It was a lovely book – beautifully illustrated and focusing on a very relevant subject for children. The book was The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen.
As you can probably guess, this book is about what it says in the title. Little Laszlo, our hero, is afraid of the Dark (personified in this story) and visits it every day in its place in the hope that it doesn’t visit him at night in his bedroom.
As the little cliffhanger in the picture above shows, the Dark did visit Laszlo one night. From this point on, the Dark challenges Laszlo to ‘come closer’ to where the Dark normally lives – in the basement and the little boy must be brave to discover what it is the Dark wants from him.
From the beginning of the book to the point where Laszlo is about to make the pivotal discovery, this reads like a suspense story. Klassen’s beautifully stark illustrations draw the reader in as much (possibly more) than Snicket’s words. However, at this key juncture, Snicket interrupts his previously pared-down narrative approach to give his reader a one-page address:
(Apologies for the terrible resolution on this – I couldn’t get my camera to work properly…)
Now, every time I came to this page, with every year group I read this to, their previously rapt attention wavered. Their eyes started looking elsewhere, the fidgeting started, a few whispers were heard. It was as if someone had switched off the lights suddenly.
As the person reading this, I also felt uncomfortable. I’d followed the rhythm of the book, enjoying the build-up, whipping them up into a state of nail-biting anticipation (OK, a little hyperbole there, but never mind) and then poured cold water over them by making them listen to a page of text that was completely different in style to the rest of the book. It was the equivalent of showing an audience the film ‘Jaws’ and -at the moment when you’re wondering if the saviours are going to capture the massive beast or become shark food – sliding in a Jacques Cousteau documentary on sharks (you can watch an interesting one here).
After my third distracted group, I tried a different tactic with the fourth; I read the book and omitted that page. Bingo. The story worked brilliantly – suspense was maintained and the children enjoyed it to the end. Then we had a discussion about the dark afterwards – raising the sort of points Snicket does on that whole-pager. Because they are good points but they feel desperately in the wrong place. I am intrigued, actually, to know why that editorial decision was made.
So it got me wondering about author asides. Even with a popular and well-loved writer, are they good things? Is it a question of location, location, location? Or is it best to let the story tell itself?
Over to you…