Stretching Young Readers

StretchingWhen I began writing Raising Dragons, I pondered the “depth” concept. Can I write a deep story that’s geared toward young readers? Most of the Christian books I had read for young people were pretty superficial, in fact, boring. They seemed intentionally dumbed down, and I thought most readers in the target age group must be yawning or even insulted.

I decided to write a straightforward story that contained hidden depth. Any astute reader would be able to gather the hidden treasures, while the youngest readers would just have fun with the story. Still, I held back a bit. I wanted to write more complexity and more puzzles, but I thought I would start with something that would stretch my readers just a little. I didn’t want to risk any readers thinking, “Huh? I don’t get it.”

With The Candlestone, I took a step forward in complexity. My hope was that readers of Raising Dragons might be ready to dig a little more. I added new characters, a bit of familial pathos, and a dash of science fiction. I also took the step of killing two characters. One was the object of the redemption theme, Bonnie’s father, and one was a villain.

It’s not unheard of to kill off a “good guy” in youth literature, so that wasn’t a huge step, but it is more unusual, from what I’ve read, to kill off someone who is a big part of the story and is redeemed at the end.

The bigger step, I think, was to use my protagonist (Billy) to kill a villain (Palin) in a way that wasn’t exactly courageous. In fact, he did directly the opposite of what he had been told to do. As readers know, this killing, even in its improper manner, is absolutely essential to the story and the development of Billy. Readers debated his actions on my message board, so I know it was a seminal moment. It made them think about inward sin, rationalization, and God’s work on the inner man. Most important, it helped them consider another face of redemption.

When I wrote Circles of Seven, I took the gloves off. I decided to make it as complex and deep as my heart desired. Were my readers ready for such a leap? I thought so. If they could handle the depth of The Candlestone, they were probably ready for another stretching exercise.

It would take too long to comment on the story themes and their many symbols in this book–godliness, redemption, sacrifice, sanctification, contentment, longsuffering, and more. I think I could write a book on this book, and it might be longer than the original. There are quite a few hidden treasures that no reader has ever commented on, so I wonder if they have all been found. Even so, I poured my heart into it and it brought great satisfaction, so I am content to hope that each little point in the story may find a life-changing place in some reader’s heart.

With Tears of a Dragon, I took sort of a sideways step. I went back to the simplicity of storytelling that I used in Raising Dragons while trying to keep a good deal of the depth that is in Circles of Seven. I employed more action, but I worked on infusing that action with the tying up of story loose ends that would make readers think. The symbol of a dragon messiah, fully dragon and fully human, dying for hopelessly lost souls brought my series-long redemption story to its climactic moment. Still, I wanted to personalize the redemption issue, so the heart of the redemption story was realized in a single soul, Jared/Clefspeare, and his return to Billy through his repudiation of pride. This worked as the peak of my thematic mountain.

I wanted to take one last step. As most of my readers are young, I knew they identified more with Billy and Bonnie than with Jared/Clefspeare. I wanted to search their souls. Billy was my messiah character, but he was an imperfect symbol, needing so much redemption himself. He needed to empty himself of everything in his past.

But what about Bonnie? She was my symbol of the faithful Christian. While still growing in wisdom, grace, and knowledge, she bowed before her savior in obedience at every turn. She had to learn to be content with her “grostesque” feature, and she learned the value of using her weaknesses for God’s glory, but did she need to empty herself as well? Was she really content with what she had no matter what? My desire was for readers to examine their own hearts to decide the answer to the book’s last-page mystery. This is the final stretching moment that I hoped to achieve, self-examination.

As my readers know, the complexity and stretching continue to heighten in Oracles of Fire, Children of the Bard, and my other series. The more I deepen the themes, the more I complicate the plots, the more twists and turns I squeeze in, the more my readers enjoy it.

So, as you might have gleaned by now, I believe in stretching young readers. They can take it. In fact, they crave it. When they get to the end of the exercise, they feel its value and the rush of spiritual adrenaline. They don’t want to be insulted by the finger-wagging of simplistic stories that tell them what to do or not to do. They want to feel the inner passion of heart-felt conflict and see how it works out in lives that they care about, even if they are fictional.

But that’s what good stories do. They stretch us beyond what we normally think we can achieve, and we need to remember that young people are often far more flexible than we might realize. We just have to be sure to help them stretch in the right direction.

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4 replies

  1. I think the complexity of Circles of Seven can be summed up in pointing out that you used Dante’s Inferno as part of your inspiration. 0=) That was my favorite of the original series, and it got bumped to second by the first Children of the Bard book, then to third only when Reapers came out. 0=)

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  2. I love the fact that there’s hidden layers… but now I want to read them again and see if I can find them all! I hope it doesn’t drive me crazy! XD But if I don’t find ’em all, I’ll enjoy the immersion into the story world, journeying with the characters again, and try learn as much as I can along the way. 🙂

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  3. You’re right. I like being stretched. I’ve definitely been stretched in the best possible way. (Is it your fault I’m so sore? 🙂 )
    I looovvve the complexity of your stories and the twists and turns. But please, feel free to stretch away. (Should I see a chiropractor, though?)

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  4. I really appreciate the depth you put into these stories. I know they are very different than several books I read when I was younger that I would not enjoy as much now. Your books are really good for older kids and adults because they have a lot in them and they tend to stay away from a lot of silly things other stories may use to attract younger readers.

    One interesting thing I’ve noted is that in some children’s stories there seems to be a little less effort put into making things make sense or into having adults make decisions one would expect for their age and experience. I don’t expect adults to be perfect, but I think I tend to dislike it when, say, books show a reasonably experienced adult leader making decisions that seem childish and inexperienced without acknowledging such errors and dealing with them in the story. It’s not fun when the author doesn’t deal with the errors and still passes the character off as an amazing leader that has a reputation for being wise.

    I don’t recall a time when I’ve encountered that problem with your characters. I think there’s been times when I’ve disagreed with the way some of the protagonist characters believed, handled something, etc. And maybe a couple things that struck me as slightly unfair, but they were in character, which is what an author should strive for.

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