In this piece from the Writer's Digest archives, T.C. O'Donnell shares the importance of finding the core of the story when writing for very small children.
By T.C. O’Donnell
Writer's Digest, April 1926
The story for the very small child is not so different in structure from the short story for an adult. Plot, theme, action, suspense, and the climax—all are there, or should be. We are speaking especially of the story for the modern child. The story of twenty-five and fifty years ago was apt to partake of the nature of a parable or an episode, with action as merely incident to carrying the reader through to an end which often was made to point a moral. The moral, if not made obvious by the purpose of the story, was at least implicit, with the result that, to our modern taste, the average story was rendered as dull and uninspiring as the “Sunday school” paper story is today.
In this respect there was no analogy between the children’s stories and verse. We have seen how, as the early eighteenth century, there had come into existence a very considerable volume of verse for children that had, to a remarkable degree, those qualities that we often regard as strictly modern—a conscious simplicity and a studied whimsicality in theme and treatment. The child’s story, however, never took on these qualities until Lewis Carol gave us “Alice in Wonderland.” “Alice,” of course, hardly qualifies as a story for the very small child, but at least it established simplicity and whimsicality as vital factors in the art of telling stories for small children.
Now for the actual construction of the “story”—and we are dealing in this article with the children’s short magazine tale, and not the book-length. We find that in the construction the qualities required are much the same as those demanded in the play—(a) subject, (b) story, (c) theme, (d) plot; and that to hold the child’s interest we must have (1) characterization, (2) action obviously leading up to a logical ending, and (3) suspense. All, of course, told in a very simple interesting manner, so that the way in which the author writes—his kinds of words, and his way of putting them together, shall lend interest equally with the plot, and action, to the story itself.
Let us take up these points, one by one, starting with the “subject” and “story.” What do we mean by “story”? Precisely the same as in the adult story. “Story” is the “aboutness,” we might say, of the thing we are going to write about. And if it can be boiled down into a single sentence, so much the better. In fact, a good test of the value of a “story” is what one might call its condensability into a single sentence, and to work out such a condensation before doing the story is often a splendid aid in building up your plot.
If I may cite one of my own stories (the genesis of the idea and the building up of the plot are more familiar to me, of course, than in the case of others’ work), there is the story of a little kitten that is scheduled to appear in the current or an early issue of Child Life.
My first thought was to write a story about a kitten—no thought of a theme or a plot thus far, not even any particular kitten in mind. But there was the start, my subject.
And may I add here that whenever you run out of other subjects, fall back upon animals, and if it is a baby animal, so much the better. A dog interests a very small child, but infinitely more does a puppy; a tiny calf more than a cow; a lamb more than a sheep; a fledgling more than a developed robin. And if we can approach these from some phase of the child’s own conscious life, such as going to school, playing games—without dragging in a moral—so much the better. Plant life, even, can be treated in the same way, as for the matter almost any natural object.
Having chosen my kitten, I wanted it to do something, not only for the purpose of affording interest but also to supply a “story.” The answer came in the form of a whimsical problem that had long perplexed me, as I watched cats lie so gracefully and contentedly in front of open fires and in the cozy softness of work baskets, as to how they learned the art to so high a degree. That was what this kitten would do—be sent by her mamma to the school where kittens are taught to lie gracefully in front of open fires and in other appropriate places.
That was the beginning, but of course something had to “happen” in order to supply plot interest, so Silky Toe came from a home down in Cat Alley, a narrow, slim thoroughfare where nobody ever did any work, and that was filled with more than enough ill-fed, worse-mannered cats to justify its sobriquet.
From such a scene, then, was Silky Toe sent by a devoted mother, with memories of a better past, to attend the school kept by an old-fashioned kitten up in the hills. It was just here in building up the “story” that my “theme” came of its own volition. Would the kitten come back to Cat Alley after “graduation” or go out into the wide world? I chose the former, and had her come back, and, through her sweet, cultured self, lead to a rehabilitation of Cat Alley.
So successful was the kitten’s education that when she came home, there being no grate to lie in front of and no work-basket to be comfy in, she curled up in an old hat. The sight intrigued her mistress, who immediately thought of something she saw in a store window that would make a beautiful thing for Silky Toe to lie curled up in. What this frowsy woman did not know even the name of, and what she bought, proved to be a work basket.
Other frowsy women in the Alley thought the kitten in the basket so lovely that they bought work baskets too for their cats, and it was not long before they were actually using them, and Cat Alley soon became one of the cleanest places in the town, with boys and girls bepatched and clean, and every cat sleek and purry.
Such was the “story” out of which was built a plot that rendered the tale of the only cat story ever to be accepted, I was told by the editor, for Child Life. Then there was the “story” that had to do with a kitten that, learning from its mother that it was rude “to stare, and stare, and stare,” was cross to its shadow, and tried to catch it in order to punish it, thereby running into all kinds of trouble, only to become aware at the end of the chase, when the sun had gone down and the shadow had disappeared, that it was she, herself, that had rudely stared all the time, and not the shadow at all.
Sometimes a subject may be so intangible that it cannot be given personality and put into action without an effect so grotesque as to completely nullify the very delicateness that lends chief charm to the story. We have in mind a tiny girl who was so heedless of the beauty of the new day that she made her baby brother cry right off by pulling his hair; and she pouted, and in every way drove the blueness out of the sky and the bird songs from the tree tops, until a chance adventure took her to the “Grotto of Where the Days are Mended” (the title of the story), where she found the lovely fairies mending the soiled and torn days, to be sent out again next day as beautiful as ever, some with patches of orange and other colors where they should be blue, for example, but beautiful for all that, even more so if anything, and when the little girl saw all that and had talked with the fairies she was a different girl ever after. The technique in this particular story consisted in making the subject (the tattered days) acted upon instead of giving them personality and providing action for them.
In this story the theme, of course, was inherent in the idea itself, and therefore required no effort whatever in adjusting it to the “story.”
Having found our “story” and its theme, the next step is to work out a plot, with action to carry it, which will form the subject of our next article.
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