I was consulting Chalk tutor and structural genius Jonathan Wolfman the other day about scripting a pre-school puppet show series. “There’s a big difference in the protagonist’s character arc if it’s episodic,’ said Jon earnestly, “It’s far more limited than in a one-off as the journey is essentially repeated each week within a different story scenario.” I nod; as an adult-only writer, I had thought it was a simple matter of “Isn’t Teddy cuddly, kiddies?” The Master continued, “Take Noddy, for example. As main protagonist, he has Big Ears as the wise old mentor archetype and, in current TV personifications, Sly and Gobbo as the villain archetypes, replacing the original racist Golly stereotypes. Mr. Plod the Policemen, while superficially antagonistic, functioning as a quasi-Threshold Guardian in mythic terms, is in reality, what Vogler would term, a benign Ally archetype…”
At this point, it dawns on me that writing for kids is not child’s play; it involves all the complexities of grown-up drama coupled with the difficulty of engaging the attention of an audience with a limited vocabulary and the possible distraction of uncomfortably damp Pampers. On top of that, we need to entertain the poor parent, who may have to watch the same show hundreds of times, with a layer of adult-humour which doesn’t interfere with the child-appeal; I mean how many times could you watch Bee Movie if you couldn’t kid yourself it was an animated version of Seinfeld?
We must beware of depicting, and thus unwittingly promoting, dangerously transgressive, imitative behaviour like crossing the road without Mummy or bicycling without a helmet, even if the cyclist is a stuffed pink rabbit. We must set good, safe examples. On the other hand, we don’t want pointy-fingered moralism – gone are the days when children died horribly for minor misdemeanours in didactic Victorian tomes with names like The Boys’ Compendium of Christian Tales. Modern kids demand naughtiness, bogies, bodily-functions which the writer has to include without offending the adult who buys the book or forks out for the DVD. According to our pre-school specialist, 64 Zoo Lane script-writer, Gillian Corderoy, we must never depict surprise birthday parties; I’m still trying to work that one out, maybe it’s so as not to pressurise harassed parents who thought they’d get away with McDonald’s Happy Meals for six and clean forgot to book the stretch limo, bouncy castle and professional magician?
We must avoid negative stereotyping, as in Goodbye, Golly, and celebrate positive images, as in Hello, Dad who does Washing Up, though our children’s publisher and editor Simona Sideri assures me that even today some publishers labour under the misconception that ‘people won’t buy books with black people on the cover’; News flash it won’t work if you live in Tooting; your child will just grow up thinking people in books live in boring places. Still, it is rumoured that when Malorie Blackman first published Noughts and Crosses, her teen novel of inter-racial romance in a divided dystopian world, the publisher shoved a picture of two white kids on the cover.
Yes, the wonderful world of writing for children is fraught with difficulties, ideological clashes and narrative challenges. Mmnn… I wonder if Tessie Bear is a non-sexualised Love Interest or a Shape-shifter archetype…
Writing Children’s Fiction and TV Monthly Workshops start Saturday 28th April