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City Lights: What draws in kids? Fun, engaging fantasy

October 08, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • Author Jo Whipp displays her book "Rainbow Rita" at the Orange County Children's Book Festival at Orange Coast College.
Author Jo Whipp displays her book "Rainbow Rita"… (Michael Miller…)

When I was a graduate student in creative writing, my classmates hewed mostly to predictable topics: dating, family bonds, drinking and clubbing.

One day, though, a robust gentleman surprised us by handing out 20 stapled copies of a story he had written for children. Evidently, he was concerned about his success, because along with the story, he submitted a sheet of positive blurbs from kids who had given it a first read.

His story, as I recall, was intriguing — a folk tale of sorts about a tribal boy who discovers a beautiful animal that only his eyes can see, and whose name he can articulate in his head but not say out loud. Thinking the boy has gone mad, his tribe threatens to exile him, and then, well, then my classmate reached the page limit for his submission, leaving us all hanging. Such are fiction workshops.

As I read what he shared, though, I tried to break out of the worldly mind-set that I usually brought to class. Those of us who wrote for peers flaunted our intellect, tying in pop-culture references (one woman crafted a stream-of-consciousness narrative with the 1960s London gangster Reggie Kray as a supporting character) and intricately layering plot points and motivations.

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Writing a great complicated book is a challenge, but writing a great simple book may be tougher. Consider this Wikipedia summary of Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat": "The story is 1,629 words in length and uses a vocabulary of only 236 distinct words, of which 54 occur once and 33 twice. Only a single word — another — has three syllables, while 14 have two and the remaining 221 are monosyllabic. The longest words are something and playthings." Yes, and now consider how much of the book you can recite from memory.

Few authors have left a cultural mark of Seussian proportions, but I encountered dozens of hopefuls at Orange Coast College on Sept. 29 for the Orange County Children's Book Festival. As dreams go, being a children's author seems both maddeningly elusive and incredibly simple. After all, if Theodor Geisel could make an enduring classic out of 236 words — somewhat fewer than James Joyce used in "Ulysses" — then that provides a glimmer of hope for anyone who tries.

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