Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Problem with Chapter Books...

Chapter books are difficult to write with that elusive sparkle/shine/punch/impact or whatever you choose to call that quality. It’s not easy to define, but most readers and writers know it instinctively. It’s that thing that makes a book either grip you from Page 1 and hang onto you thereafter or else the thing that keeps the book with you… possibly for life.

Think about your favourite books of all time (and tell us about them in the comments area below)- those are probably the ones with sparkle.

Sparkle is the thing that makes that one book stand out from the fifty or so you read in a year. It can show up in books that are not necessarily brilliant in other ways, but it is always persuasive. Sparkle in a book might be equated with charm in humans.

It seems from my experience that this sparkle is more likely to crop up in picture books or in YA or primary school novels than in chapter books. I think that’s because picture books are lean, and powerful; they rely on a kill’em premise, a classic shape, clear theme and a pared down but musical style.

YA books also benefit from the strong premise and clear (sometimes multiple) theme(s), and also from a more varied style option and, importantly, from characterisation that has depth and density. Of course some YA literature is light and fluffy, but it usually gets by with a very strong narrative voice that becomes the sparkle. I'm thinking here of the Georgia Nicolson books, a British YA series by Louise Rennison. Georgia tells the stories in the first person and her mode of narration is startling. The nearest I can get to it is some of the dialogue in the 1980s Black Adder television series. Whether you take to Georgia and her experiences or not, those books have sparkle by the truckload.

Books for “older children” (Primary School novels) benefit from the same things as YA and can even find a strength in the very area they lack; boy/girl romance. Because the primary school book characters are not concerned primarily (or even at all in many cases) with the opposite sex, (beyond avoiding girl germs and boy germs, perhaps) the other strong themes of friendship, family, independence, responsibility etc can be explored fully. This is also the perfect age for adventures taking place at a remove from the family circle.

If you look at chapter books in this light, you can see why they are so difficult to imbue with sparkle. They are never as clear and sharp as a picture book because they're not so pared-down. They cannot handle the depth of characterisation or theme that a YA can carry. Many of the strong themes and complex ideas the Primary School books manage are “out” for chapter books because they’re not long enough to hold them and a plot. One of the major problems is in the vocabulary limitations. Even picture books have a strong vocabulary base, because they are designed to be read by adults to children.

Does this mean chapter books are doomed to be bland, homogenous and forgettable? I don't believe so, but I think they do need extra care and feeding to make the grade.

For a chapter book to sparkle, authors have to go out a long way on a storytelling limb and trawl for that “something extra”, and it will generally be just one thing, because there’s no room for anything else.

Some sparkling chapter books are actually fables, using folk-tale-style themes or characters. This gives them a layered feel that allows children to read them at face value while adults appreciate the underlying story-heritage.

Some are really short stories (in the literary sense) in that they develop a single incident or theme. The chapter demarcations are more or less arbitrary.

Some rely on crackling humour and mad puns. A lot of these appeal more the kids than to adults, but anything that has eight-year-olds tying themselves in knots of laughter and quoting choice excerpts will probably commend itself to the book buying adults. A related kind relies on scatological humour, with bum and fart repeated ad nauseum.

Others rely on one or more out-of-the-box character or, like picture books, on a strong and specific premise. A few rely on beautiful and poetic language. (Pick up Annie Dalton’s The Witch Rose for an example.)

Then there are the one-joke premise series, which present one oddity, treat it absolutely straight, and build the whole story on that. (Think Duncan Ball’s Selby books, or Michael Bond’s old Paddington series.)

As with picture books, a high concept/log line for a manuscript helps show you how strong the story is. If the 25-word-or-fewer high concept is pedestrian, then the book probably is as well.


  1. Sally, I love your analogy of sparkle = charm and agree with your insights. Another source of sparkle is irreverence and a celebration of the unexpected (in both content and format). I'm thinking here of funny British writers like Andy Stanton. In Stanton's Mr Gum series, the reader is confronted with one-word chapters, appalling song lyrics and creative fonts. Mr Gum is a filthy old codger whose favourite TV program is 'Bag of Sticks' and that's what it is - a picture of a bag of sticks. The writing is fresh and funny:
    'Friday O'Leary was as old as the hills and as wise as the hills but not as tall as the hills. His bald head was covered in thick, curly hair and he had the normal number of legs.'

    1. Yes indeed. That unexpectedness and mad logic is just what hits the 8-year-olds where they live. The Jack Russell: Dog Detective series I co-wrote with my husband works at least in part because of its dog-speak puns. Jack might be pawfully glad to see you, or he might ig-gnaw you if feeling cross.