…But Letting Kid-Characters at the Grown-Up Table, Too

I’ve often teased my family for turning me into the calendar-wielding maniac of (attempted) organization that I am. I, like many other moms (and dads) in America, am the keeper, expediter and outfitter of soccer practices, birthday parties, Brownies and other such obligations. I have, at time, indulged in the fantasy that had I not become a mother, I’d be running, obligation-free, through a field of wildflowers, oblivious to time and details.

calendar

That all changed when my parents decided to downsize last spring. I helped them sort through their belongings, taking the old Life magazines and Trivial Pursuit game for myself, but it was my mom who discovered a real piece of myself and my childhood.
“Look,” she said, pulling out a folder. She carefully lifted up red construction valentines made brittle with age and pictures from the first day of school. And then, she pulled out my notes. This was pretty representative idea (my mom kept the notes, so this is from memory).

Dear Mom,
I’ve gone to baseball practice and should be home by 6:30. I have taken a jacket with me. I have eaten a light snack, but would like something warm to eat when I get home.

I was 11 when I wrote this note, and there were others like it. Notes detailing where I was going, what I had done and what I expected to do when I got home. I realized, to my horror, that I had always been like this, detail-focused and time-conscious. I am only grateful that at that age, it was not possible for me to have a Blackberry or other such device; I probably would have attempted minute-by-minute scheduling.

What this incident reminded me, though, was that while it is fun (and even necessary in middle-grade) to write about characters who are sassy and immature (in need of growth might be a nice way to put it), it is also fine to give them a few characters that hint at what’s to come. Yes, yes, there are also adults who remain sassy and immature but as Michele Weber Hurtwitz’s post pointed out yesterday, we writers for kids get very nervous about being sufficiently kid-like. A kid would never say that, we say, glancing around for a 9-year-old to talk to about the latest lingo. Kids don’t do that.

Certainly, out of my three kids, none would leave me a detailed note about their whereabouts. But my point is that without necessarily turning the trait into a caricature or creating an overly serious character, it is okay to add a little adult-ness. Claudia, the main character in the blog-inspiring-novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler, is a perfect example of this:
Claudia knew that she could never pull of the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes.

From-the-Mixed-Up-Files-of-Mrs.-Basil-E.-Frankweiler

We can certainly imagine Claudia as an adult, running a corporation one day, though author E.L. Konisburg never lets us forget she is a child, too. She does not know about typing exercises or how to manage money, and she tries to send her brother a psychic message at one point to warn him. But that’s what makes her utterly believable and delightful; to the extent that a line exists between childhood and adulthood, she sits astride it, taking in from both sides. The note from my parents’ house reminded me to worry less about making sure my characters are stereotypical kids and to focus more on keeping them real.

3 Responses to …But Letting Kid-Characters at the Grown-Up Table, Too

  1. There’s no accusation like one written in your own handwriting!

  2. I love your note; thoughtful and politely demanding as well.

  3. Excellent points, Wendy! Immediately makes me think of Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min character. P.S., I loved your childhood note!