Monday, March 10, 2008

The Real Child

Books with children fall into two categories for me. One is the frankly unbelievable kid that sounds like a tiny adult. They're well behaved--or horribly ill-mannered--but whatever they are, it isn't your normal everyday kid. The other kind of child in a story is the child that is just that--a sometimes naughty, mostly good kid.

I have a lot of children in my books. No, don't ask me why or how, but I end up writing about kids. Maybe because I've always had them around. My first child was born when I was nineteen and once you have them, they're yours for life. Forever! So its just possible that I have no idea what life is like without kids. Anyway, they just naturally slip into the story lines and fit into their very own niches as though they were created for them.

In case you haven't noticed, children don't think like adults. Their perspective is completely different. Things that we hold as self-evident, they puzzle over. That's because they're children, still in that curious, wondering, exploratory stage. That's probably also why they do incredibly dumb things like ride their big wheels off the picnic table or jump off the roof (no don't ask why they were on the roof in the first place) or build a campfire on their bedroom floor. I imagine that's why they taste things like perfume or charcoal lighter fluid or lysol. Otherwise how will they know it tastes nasty?

And because they don't reason like adults, they don't speak like adults. Complete sentences? Mostly not. Their all-time favorite phrase? Why? This is usually spoken in a whiney tone. The second all-time favorite phrase is dunno.

Susie, why did you paint the wall with my lipstick?


That's not acceptable. Go sit in time-out.


See, that's how it works. So when I see dialogue with a completely rational, erudite child I always wonder when the writer last spent time with a child. I admit that there are a lot of children out there that can speak the "king's English", but most of them don't. They mostly speak what I used to call "childglish".

John, why did you cut your sister's hair?


What do you mean, you don't know? How can you not know?


Where did you get the scissors? My sewing scissors that are kept on top of the cabinet so that your sister doesn't poke her eye out?

Dunno. At this point, the kid shrugs for emphasis and maybe rubs his nose on his sleeve or t-shirt.

John, how am I supposed to fix your sister's hair? You cut it all the way down to the scalp! I'm shocked that you didn't accidentally cut her head!

At this point we get the "justification". It's not my fault that she moved. I told 'er to stand still.

That's what a real conversation is like. Tricky. Depending on how the parent handles it, he/she might find out what the read deal is. Or not.

Children are also inherently dirty. It doesn't matter if you just gave them a bath. No, it doesn't. Five minutes later they will find some way to get dirty. They are dirt magnets. Chocolate milk, the yellow powder from cheese doodles, Mom's hand lotion, dog/cat hair, they'll find a way. When I see a child in a pristine outfit with shined shoes in a story, one of two things strike me. That's a child with deep, deep problems. Or that's a kid on the way to church. Maybe both.

They whine. They sigh. They yell and screech. They giggle and laugh. They whisper and mutter. But they seldom just talk. Their eyes roll off in the direction of the television or food or whatever is the most recent distration. When you send them to the kitchen for something, they likely will forget where they're going before they get there and you'll find them an hour later on the floor in their bedroom playing Barbies or outside in the yard watching ants.

In a book, a child can be a wonderful counterpoint to the story. Or a terrible distraction. What do you think? Have you read a wall-banger that drove you nuts because of a child character?

Here's a snippet of my current wip with a scene between Bishop and his nephew, Cougar.

A sharp thump on the door heralded the arrival of yet another of his nephews, this time a very young one with a pair of sandals in his hands. “Uncle Bishop, Dai said to bring these to you ‘cause you need shoes. Why do you need shoes?” he demanded with a puzzled scowl. “Did someone steal your shoes?”

Bishop took the sandals from him and slipped them on unsurprised to find them a decent fit. “Something like that. What’s your name, son?”

“Cougar.” He gave Bish a considering look from dark eyes very like his father’s. “I don’t think I’m your son, though.”

“You’re absolutely correct,” Bish agreed gravely. “Out-valley you would be my nephew.”

“Okay. Are you finally ready? Everyone’s waiting to eat. And tonight is country fried steak. It’s my favorite,” Cougar confided.

“Oh, well. In that case, we must go at once.”


Please drop by Amarinda's Place to find out what she was up to on her Monday. Then pop over to Kelly's Blog to find out if she finished her packing and recovered from Daylight Savings Time. Blessings on your day!


  1. not to comment I think

  2. You hit it dead on, Anny:) TV does this too...there's a supposed 4-year-old on one of my favorite shows, and he acts more like 7! And I don't think he's a child prodigy.

    Great interaction between Bishop and Cougar!

  3. Packing is an ongoing process here. Speaking of kids, do you have ANY IDEA how hard it is to get your children to reduce their stuffed animal population down by 40%? I admit to caving. I couldn't handle P's tears. That kid is so stoic that when she does cry (quietly and heartbreakingly) I just have to make it better. She never cries unless she's REALLY distraught.

    J's room is a disaster. But I did convince the dh to clean the basement and do laundry.

    What was I talking about? Oh yeah, kids. Kids steal the show. In the Marriage books I introduce one kid who is important in the final book. That's it. You do them very well, Anny.

  4. I love the kids in your books...cause they're *real* It's something I don't see a lot of in fiction. I hate when authors throw a child into stories for the "cute" factor.

  5. Anny, I can see you know kids even more than I do. I'm lucky to have two granddaughters (1.5 and 3.5y)living not too far and I often have them for a day or weekend. Two days ago, my 3.5 y asked a man in the elevator: Why you wearing an earring? He said: You are wearing earrings too. Smart O said with an important nod of the head: that cause I'm a girl. The man blushed. Seriously!!
    And my little 1.5 y did better. We were baby-sitting her. When he mommy and daddy came back, she turned to me with a smile and waved: Bye bye, Nonna now.

    I love when kids are part of the story but it completely throws out of the story when a kid appears just for one scene and child-talks for a whole page.

  6. Great blog and ain't it the truth. Though from my son we never even got a dunno, just a shoulder shrug.
    Loved the excerpt!

  7. And once they are early teens it gets even more interesting. Then you don't even get dunno. You get a shrug or a blank look like you suddenly started speaking ancient Greek and they have no clue what you just said. I can't tell you how many times a day I channel Chris Rock, "Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?" or "Has English suddenly become not your primary language?"

    Of course communication with my ESOL students is another thing altogether.

  8. Anny,

    Loved the excerpt.

    Kids...I have 8 N&N's (Nieces & Nephews) the oldest 17, will graduate this June, the youngest turned 1 in January. I graduate with my BA one month before my N grads from High School. I know more about what he studies than his parents. His youngest sib is in 4th grade and has done the dunno better than his 4 older sibs ever thought of doing. No one in our family has ever recieved a better answer from him.

    I abhor books that misuse children in any way. Either by way of abuse or by way of not knowing about and thereby not writing them correctly. There are genius and well/over developed children out there (my oldest nephew), but the majority of children are not like that. If your going to write about children, you should show more than just the above average.
    (Sorry about the rant!)