I've recently been working on a new children's book project, reviving my CatKid side to create another precocious narrator. Why? Because those characters crack my head up, that's why. After completing the manuscript, and before reworking it, I wanted to freshen up a bit on other similar type books just to sort of see where I stood in creating something unique.
I picked two popular books within in the same level and same target audience. What I discovered surprised me in many ways, while in others seemed unfortunately predictable.
Up first was Judy Moody Saves the World by Megan McDonald. I'd been aware of the Judy Moody books for years and had been meaning to read them. The books are quite popular, and being the Literature Major that I am, I wanted to examine them. I was hoping to find a new character to love, but alas, I found an example of what bothers me about some of children's publishing today.
The series title is by far the catchiest thing about these books. In the world we live in, that gives a book a headstart to becoming a hit. It's easily marketable. This is a perfect example. Clever title. Clever concept (saving the world is a favorite lesson for both teachers and parents). But once I got inside the covers, I found a very sort of calculated attempt at being kid-friendly.
The characters felt flat. The informative facts felt forced. Even Judy's catch-phrase was fake. "Rare!" is her expression for anything that excites her. I've never heard anyone use that word before in such a way. Don't get me wrong, the book was exactly bad and I think kids would enjoy it (obviously thousands upon thousands have), but it reminded me of a return to an old style of didactic children's books wrapped up in pretty packaging to fool people into thinking it was modern.
What's odd to me is that this book, written in 1955, felt more refreshing than the new book. A lot of books written in those post-war decades give me the feeling that I just described for Judy Moody. I was expecting a little of that, even though I love Beverly Cleary and know she is such a gifted writer.
I happy to discover the book wasn't like that at all. Mostly because the story wasn't trying to do anything from a marketing point of view. It only tried to be what it was. A story about two sisters that sometimes didn't get along. The characters came to life because of the honesty of the writing. The kids weren't created to feel cool...they were simply kids. The humor was very real. The story was heartfelt. Those are the ingredients for a great children's book.
Though marketing has the power to create a hit...only great writing can create a classic. For this reason, I imagine the Judy Moody series will be forgotten by the next generation, while Ramona will always live on, as she has for generations. As a writer, I've always been more interested in creating stories that are dear and meaningful. If that means not getting a merchandising bonanza of spin-off journals and t-shirts, so be it. As long as the kids who read the books I write remember them fondly, that's all I could hope to ask for. There's enough disposable products in the world without needing to create anymore.