What makes for good children’s books? In this series on how to choose children’s books, I have suggested that choice-worthy children’s books have both subjective appeal, and developmental value. In other words, good kids’ books are appealing to a child, and help her grow.
One characteristic that can affect the developmental value of a kids’ book is the complexity of the book’s story. In this article I will explain what I mean by “story complexity,” and what I see as the connection between the complexity of children’s stories and social development (e.g., emotional and intellectual development). I will draw on prominent examples of recent juvenile and young adult fiction to illustrate my points: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Rebecca Stead’s Newbery Medal winner When You Reach Me. While what I have to say will apply mostly to older children, I will also try to give some rough guidance on choosing complex stories for younger children.
If you would like to read from the first article in this series, “How to Choose Children’s Books,” click here.
Children’s Stories and Social Development: Complex Characters
Viewed one way, the basic elements of a story are characters and plots. Both of these elements may contribute to the complexity of a story. First, I will discuss how the characters in a story may contribute to its complexity. A complex character is one whose mental, emotional, and behavioral activity is developed by the author to such a degree that she seems deeply true to life.
J.K. Rowling is a master of this sort of character development, so I will use Neville Longbottom—one of Harry’s friends in the Harry Potter series—as an example of a complex character in a children’s novel. In the beginning of the Harry Potter series, Neville is introduced as a well meaning but bumbling pre-teen who lacks confidence. We later learn that his lack of confidence is partially a function of pressure he feels to live up to the high standard of courage and self-sacrifice that his parents set in their fight against Lord Voldemort and his minions. Neville is constantly losing his pet frog Trevor, botching an assignment in potions class, or forgetting the password to the Gryffindor common room.
However, early on we also discover that Neville has an aptitude for herbology (the study of magical plants), which ends up being quite useful to Harry in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Book 4) (Gillyweed, anyone?), and that Neville has the makings of courage: recall his feeble but brave attempt to stop Harry, Ron, and Hermione from sneaking out at night to safeguard the Sorceror’s Stone in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1).
As the series progresses, Neville’s character grows up. He becomes an increasingly brave and competent help in the fight against Voldemort, gradually emerging from the long shadow cast by his heroic parents. By the end of the series—in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)—Neville has become the ringleader of the student resistance movement at Hogwarts, which is now controlled by Voldemort’s forces. Not only does he endure severe and unjust punishments in his resistance to evil, but he ends up killing Voldemort’s precious snake Nagini—the last of Voldemort’s life-preserving horcruxes. In the Epilogue to the series we learn that Neville has become the herbology professor at Hogwarts.
My point in this somewhat extensive sketch of Neville Longbottom (my apologies to those who have not read the novels) is that J.K. Rowling has created in Neville a multi-faceted complex character that pops from the pages of her novels. Neville’s emotional life is not merely one-dimensional, but rather reflects a dynamic redemptive journey from insecurity and halting bravery, to confidence and full-blown courage. Moreover, Rowling’s sketch of Neville’s family history shows us why he feels the way he does at the various points in the story. We see and understand Neville’s journey from bungler to professor, and how it is connected with his emotional life.
Indeed, it is a marvel of Rowling’s series that she develops even secondary characters like Neville Longbottom to such an extent. Our depth of insight into the central protagonists, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and even into the villain, Voldemort, of course exceeds that available for secondary characters like Neville.
Character complexity like this contributes to child development. Specifically, it can help children see connections between personal history, thoughts, emotions, and behavior, which in turn can help them make such connections in their own life. Indeed, I think this is one of the central ways that fiction communicates truth: by making sense of realistically complex characters, fiction helps us make sense of our own lives. Making sense of our lives in this way amounts to a kind of intellectual and emotional development. This is of course true of all good fiction (including adult fiction), but the generality of this point makes it is no less true and important of children’s books.
Children’s Stories and Social Development: Complex Plots
Second, a complex plot may contribute to the complexity of a kids’ story. To explain the elements of a complex plot I will use Rebecca Stead’s recent Newbery Medal-winning novel When You Reach Me (for an in-depth review of When You Reach Me, which includes a brief plot summary, click here).
A complex plot generally leaves the reader with some mystery or puzzle to solve over the course of the book. For example, in When You Reach Me, the reader is confronted immediately with the mysterious notes that the protagonist, Miranda, has been receiving. Who is sending these notes? What do they mean? Is the sender trustworthy? The novel gradually drops clues and hints as it progresses, helping both Miranda and the reader solve the mystery.
The developmental value of a mystery like this is that it stimulates the reader’s thinking as she tries to solve the puzzle. Just as Miranda is straining to solve the mystery, so is the reader. And this process of figuring out a complex plot forces the reader to use deductive reasoning, and reasoning to the best explanation. Not only must the reader try to arrange the outward clues—e.g., messages, missing objects, human actions—into a coherent picture, but she must also integrate the reasons and motives that drive the characters in the story. This sort of reasoning is great mental exercise and can contribute to the expansion of a child’s intellectual abilities in a fun, engaging way.
A complex plot also generally tells several different stories at once. These are often the stories of the central and secondary characters in the book. As I have noted, in When You Reach Me the main story is the unraveling of the mystery set by the anonymous notes Miranda receives. However, there are also many secondary stories woven into the central story. For example, the novel traces the puzzling development of Miranda’s estranged relationship with Sal, her growing friendships with Annemarie and Colin, the story of her mother’s escape from a boring job, and the story of the seemingly crazy homeless man on the corner, who sleeps with his head under a mailbox.
The developmental value of reading complex stories like this—i.e., stories that have “wheels within wheels”—is that a child must hold in mind many plotlines at once, and must remember how those plotlines overlap and integrate into a whole. In short, reading children’s books with multiple simultaneous plotlines requires a child to exercise her memory in challenging and productive ways. This is not the dull exercise of flashcard memorization, but rather a dynamic exercise of memory, driven by the child’s desire to understand an interesting story.
Story Complexity and Younger Children
The connection I have drawn between story complexity and child development is most obviously applicable to older children—i.e., roughly children older than 9 years of age—whose memory and reasoning abilities have progressed to a level such that they can benefit from complex stories like those in When You Reach Me and the Harry Potter novels. However, younger children can also benefit from complex stories, though the level of complexity must be tempered to meet the abilities of the younger child.
The aim for a younger child should be to expose him to a level of complexity that stretches him, but does not exasperate him. There is no formulaic way to determine this level and find books to match. The best advice is just to notice your child’s level of intellectual development (e.g., is he able to give reasons for his thoughts and actions? Does he remember things he reads?), and try some books. If you overshoot, you can always save a book for later. Reading a complex story to a younger child, and helping him with it, is also a nice way to encourage the sort of development I have touched on in this article (not to mention the myriad other benefits that come with reading to children).
Two books by Graeme Base—The Sign of the Seahorse, and The Eleventh Hour—are nice examples of complex stories appropriate for children aged 6 to 8 years. Both have a large range of characters and challenge the reader with mysteries and riddles to solve, not to mention interesting themes and fantastic illustrations. Six-to-eight-year-olds would especially benefit from reading Base’s complex stories with an adult (my kids have!).
In the next article in this series on how to choose children’s books for your students I will continue to discuss the developmental value of good children’s books, focusing on the topic of exemplary characters.
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