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As You Write Your Children’s Book, Consider "The Slow Reveal"
Eighteen months ago, I practiced karate. It’s great exercise, but the biggest reason I exercise is because I want to be a great senior citizen. If someone tries to grab my wallet or refuse my senior discount at Denny’s, I can respond with a quick punch to the solar plexus. Laying the groundwork now will make me sick at 65.
But the cool thing about doing karate when you’re a woman in your mid-40s is that people don’t automatically expect it. If you’re just a casual acquaintance, you don’t know that I’m working on my black belt. And by the time I’m collecting Social Security, that possibility won’t even cross your mind. Unless you try to steal my wallet.
In life, most people become more complex as we get to know them. This should also apply to characters in children’s books. At a recent conference, Lyron Bennett, editor of Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, called it a “slow discovery.” This means giving your characters enough variety of traits, some of which can be withheld until called for in the plot.
A slow reveal is especially important when writing a series. If J.K. Rowling would have let Harry Potter reach his full wizarding power in Book 1, or would fans have had to wait nine years and six more books to find out if he finally defeated you-know-who? But it’s equally important to plant the seeds early for someone to become their own character. From the beginning, readers saw Harry’s potential, and Rowling allowed Harry’s greatness to emerge when it was least expected. These qualities grew with Harry as the series progressed.
Even in some books, you don’t want to give everything at once. Picture books and easy readers with fewer word counts and simple plots do best with characters that have a surprise or two. In Peggy Parish’s classic easy reader Amelia Bedelia, a child sees Amelia doing a bad job on her first day as a mistress because she doesn’t understand the list her employer left her. But even before Amelia gets down to the list, she’s whipping up a lemon meringue pie. What the reader doesn’t know is that Amelia makes the best pies anywhere, which ultimately saves her job at the end of the book.
By dividing the main character’s strengths and weaknesses, the tension is maintained in the novel. In Gary Paulsen’s beloved Hatchet (ages 11-14), Brian, a city kid, is stranded in the Canadian wilderness after his bush plane crashes, killing the pilot. Neither Brian nor the reader knows if he has what it takes to survive alone. Can he figure out how to start a fire? Yes, completely by accident. Can he fish? After all. Kill and cook a bird? How to survive a moose attack or survive a hurricane? Brian evolves by reacting to his predicament and coming up with solutions until he thoroughly takes control of his situation. But nothing Brian does is out of character. Although he has to learn to live in the wild, he draws on the information he learned from watching television or at school and the reserves of power he had all along.
Even if you’re writing a single title, just in case, make your children’s book characters complex enough that they can live several books. Fans loved Brian so much that Paulsen was convinced to use the character in several other desert adventures. Picture book series (like Mo Willem’s Pigeon books) or easy reader series like Amelia Bedeley’s usually thrive because the main character’s quirks are endless and funny enough that readers don’t mind exploring them again and again in different settings.
The slow reveal works especially well in mysteries. In this genre, readers gradually get to know the victim (perhaps an honors student who opens up an Internet business selling test answers) and the villain (who may seem like a good guy at the beginning of the book). Or how about a first-person narrator in any genre who seems normal and likable at first but becomes more unreliable as the story progresses? Read Robert Cormier’s timeless young adult book I Am Cheese for a masterful example of a shifting first-person reality. If you want a broader perspective, try Avi’s Nothing But the Truth: A Documentary Novel for Ages 11-14, which examines a single incident from multiple points of view, gradually separating fact from fiction. So when you first breathe life into your characters, don’t stop too quickly. Add layers that can be exposed later. Whether you’re writing about a boy wizard, a demanding pigeon, or a ninja grandma, these surprises will delight readers.
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