Books that Break the Rules

Posted by on Dec 17, 2014 in Children's Literature, Editing | 0 comments

Old booksI was an editor before I was a writer (still am, in fact), and I can tell you there are certain things you look for in a manuscript when you first pick it up, a sort of mental checklist before you can even begin deciding whether or not it’s a fit for your list and something your company could publish successfully. Will it fit in a recognized format? Does it have a protagonist of the right age? Does the main character grow and change as the book progresses? Does it preach an irritating and stuffy moral? Stuff like that.

It is surprising, then, when I’m reading the classics to my daughter, to find how many of them violate these rules. Like these:

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: Can’t be beat for sheer transgressive fun and sly humor and a dead-on perception of the trials of childhood (like being FORCED to be Joseph in the Christmas pageant just because your father is the minister). Violates the rules by having a protagonist who is barely developed, doesn’t even get a name (!), and essentially exists as a set of eyes through which to see the action.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The ultimate wish-fulfillment book, as tasty to read as a chocolate bar is to eat. Violates the rules by having a passive protagonist who does nothing to earn his good fortune—who, in fact, earns his good fortune BY doing nothing.

Stuart Little: There’s something just so oddly satisfying about this book, although I have trouble putting my finger on it. Is it the sharp perception of the experience of being tiny in a giant world, perhaps? Violates the rules by not wrapping up plot threads once they have been started. (Did Stuart ever find Margalo? Did he ever see Miss Ames again?) And the car that goes invisible, too. That part’s just silly, E.B.

And yet, they’re marvelous books. I enjoying reading them as much as my girl loves hearing them. So is the moral that geniuses (genii?) can break the rules, or that the rules are silly?

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