Monday, 9 March 2015

"Ogres have layers" - Anne Rooney

Ogres are like onions...
A few years ago someone whose opinion I respect said the book I was writing dealt with ideas that were too hard for the target market (teens). I think there are many other reasons that book might not find a publisher, including some episodes that will have gatekeepers pulling up the drawbridge quicker than you can say 'they did WHAT?' So I shelved the book, even though I'd got 40,000 words into it.

But now I've nearly finished another book which has Big Ideas behind it, and I'm not so happy to abandon this one. So I've been wondering whether it's actually rather patronising to suppose an idea is too old for a target reader. All readers are different. And if the book works without the reader consciously thinking about the idea, and the idea is not obtrusive, where's the problem? Readers of a more philosophical bent are invited to think about a significant question or issue and will enjoy the mental gymnastics. Readers of a more literal bent will just get on with the story and not think about the issue.

How many of us, returning to a children's book years later, have suddenly spotted references, allusions, themes that we didn't notice with our young brains?

They can be like easter eggs. Not the chocolate ones. Easter eggs are those hidden bits of functionality and jokes in software that are not documented but you might come across by accident, or hidden single frames in a movie. If you want to see an Easter egg in action, open Firefox and type "about:robots" into the address bar. Or open Google and type "do a barrel roll". Type "anagram." OK, enough already - you get the idea. Your previous enjoyment of Google and Firefox was not reduced by your not knowing about those, was it?

There's nothing wrong with layers. We like layers, as Shrek points out. Onions, layer cakes, mille feiulle, ogres - they all have layers. Disney movies have an increasing number of jokes and references for the adults who are going to have to endure the DVD a very large number of times. And they've been doing it for a while. The Nuremberg rally sequence in Lion King springs to mind.

Remember that? Did that stop children enjoying Lion King? And how delighted my Big Bint was, years later, to see the reference to Leni Reifenstahl's film-making - because it's not just (or even) about Hitler and Scar, but about Leni and Walt.

It didn't do Philip Pullman any harm to stuff lots of Milton into the His Dark Materials trilogy, and there must have been a few gasps of recognition when readers grew up a bit and did Paradise Lost for A level English or at university. You not only don't need to have read Paradise Lost to understand His Dark Materials, you also don't need to explicitly sit down and think about authority and freedom, good and evil, or knowledge and ignorance. Themes, references and allusions are gifts for the reader's future self. Not all of them will ever find the gift - probably very few. But for those that do, it's a delight. Do you think three-year olds think about the balance of justice in That is Not My Hat? Does the little fish get away with it? How complicit are you as a reader in either wanting him to get away with it (pro-theft) or get caught (pro-retribution)? When does your allegiance switch? Why? Have you really thought about it? Is this book too old for you?

So I'll keep going on the book that is (for me) an exploration of Descartes' and Leibniz's differing views on the body and the soul and that is (on the surface) a jolly story about robots and ghosts.

Anne Rooney
(Stroppy Author)
Latest books: today! From Badger Learning


Catherine Butler said...

It's not a book, but I do like this cartoon:

(I love the fact that in order to post this comment I have to tick a box marked "I am not a robot".)

bookwitch said...

The style of the writing shouldn't be so stiff and boring as to scare readers, of any age, off. But teenagers think more than anyone, so how can they not be ready for whatever you write about? Some people whose opinon you trust are wrong. Sometimes. So don't give up.

Emma Barnes said...

I loved Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe Saga when I was growing up, in which the characters are constantly quoting Shakespeare or similar - I didn't have to know references to enjoy them. And I was amused when reading one of The Princess Diaries books to see references not only to many teen movies but to the governmental theories of John Locke - I guess that hasn't put off its many, many readers either.

Nick Green said...

What were the issues (in the previous book and this one) that were felt to be inappropriate for young adults?