This is the first installment of a series analyzing the humor, heart, and zany plots of various Pixar films. The focus is on applying these principles to children’s stories, however, writers of all genres can benefit from Pixar’s literary genius, so I highly encourage you to have a seat and prepare to write like the wind!
“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” I’m sure C. S. Lewis would frown at the increasing number of books that are only enjoyed by children. Sometimes kids don’t even like them, which isn’t surprising when titles like Captain Underpants line the shelves, indicating that there’s no sign of intelligent life anywhere. Excellent children’s literature is important because it shapes the minds of young readers. We often forget this.
Where have modern children’s books failed?
Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market 2016 says, “One of the biggest pieces of advice that these authors have for writers trying to break into the children’s market is not to talk down to kids.”* No one teaches this better than Professor Pixar. For over two decades, Pixar has captivated children and adults alike, causing them to laugh one minute and cry the next. It’s the greatest professor you’re ever gonna get, and if you just keep reading, you’ll see why.
What is Talking Down to Kids?
The biggest pitfall children’s authors stumble into is diluting their books into digestible portions. But Kelly Sonnack of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency says, “Kids are really smart and you have to give them credit for that.”** The difference between adult and children’s fiction is exaggerated—it isn’t simple versus complex or shallow versus deep, but weaving the complex plots of adult fiction into simplicity. Compare an excellent adult novel with an equally excellent children’s story. The adult novel may have a huge cast and many underlying themes, and the children’s story a small cast with only two or three prominent themes, but underneath you’ll discover that they share similar character arcs, goals, and conflicts.
Did you know that Diary of a Wimpy Kid was intended for adults? Jeff Kinney recollects “that if I had been thinking of a kids’ audience as I was writing, I would’ve written down to kids. Even now, when I write, I think of adult readers, not kids.” The best way to reach children is by writing a book you’d want to read now. Don’t spoil your story by using too many plain words, silly jokes, and flat characters because you assume kids won’t get it. Children can sense when you’re humoring them, and even if they like your book now, they’ll soon outgrow your story’s boundaries.
To combat this, stop viewing your readers as children. Instead, view them as short adults who struggle with algebra and like cupcakes more than they ought. However, Pixar uses three other strategies that propelled their stories in the right direction.
1. Unusual, Serious Predicaments
“Allison forms a secret club and discovers the true meaning of friendship” is an accurate representation of most modern juvenile fiction. The protagonist’s trouble is usually nothing worse than being banned from a pizza party or flunking a history test. Although these stories have their place and can teach kids valuable lessons, they won’t have nearly as much impact as a pressing dilemma in a fantastical world.
Children wrestle with the same difficulties as adults, only on a smaller scale. You needn’t nix a problem just because kids wouldn’t normally encounter it. Who would’ve expected children to be interested in a movie about a superhero and his marriage issues? Or one about a grumpy old man who missed his wife? Wouldn’t it have been better to tell Nemo’s story from his POV rather than his father’s? Isn’t it coincidental that more than 90 percent of Pixar’s protagonists are adults?
Kids aren’t likely to need to return a plant to a spaceship or battle evil grasshoppers, but as your protagonist conquers his own unusual challenge, children will see themselves in the character’s day-to-day upheavals. For example, Lightning McQueen witnesses the King wrecking, but he knows if he helps him, he’ll lose the race. A kid plans to go skateboarding, but he keeps thinking about the lonely elderly woman next door. His friends will make fun of him if he decides to visit her instead of going to the rink, but he approaches her house anyway. The more vividly you paint the consequences in your story, the more vibrantly children will apply it to their own circumstances.
Couldn’t Pixar have depicted stories in a more relatable format? Ratatouille could have been about a beggar boy who taught an awkward teenager how to cook, and Toy Story could have been about a teacher’s pet who was jealous of the new star student. But, by wielding the weapon of what-ifs, Pixar touched the hearts of millions. And, let’s face it, braving the subconscious is a thousand times more fascinating than Allison’s secret clubhouse.
You’ve heard “show, don’t tell” over and over again, yet somehow people have gotten the idea that children’s books are the exception to this rule. However, children can sometimes pick up on things adults won’t even notice.
Inside Out is perhaps the best example of showing in all Pixar history. When Riley takes her mom’s credit card, Honesty Island avalanches, demonstrating that small actions can destroy character. Never once did the movie state that negative emotions like sadness can produce positive results such as compassion. Instead, Joy discovered that as she replayed one of Riley’s core memories and saw that Sadness brought Riley’s friends to her side.
If the story’s moral isn’t grasped by all your readers, that’s okay. As they mature, they will unearth your hidden message and love it all the more because of its subtlety. When I was little, Toy Story was just a funny movie and I didn’t realize until years later that it showed I don’t have to be the favorite to be loved. Those hidden gems kept me watching Pixar movies and anticipating the next film (most of the time). So, if your pages are bursting with unexpected adventures, it won’t matter if the theme isn’t immediately detected.
Are you still afraid your novel is too complex for children’s minds? Test it on some poor, unsuspecting bystanders (or younger siblings) and ask their opinions. If most readers are blind to your story’s theme, you might want to consider rewriting. And if an adult can’t discern its purpose, you need to panic. Try defining your theme in a single sentence and contemplate how you can convey it more clearly, maybe by having the protagonist voice a certain phrase or struggle more emotionally throughout the story.
3. Real Life Resemblances
Claiming that a tale about a fuzzy blue monster and his one-eyed friend could mirror real life almost sounds ironic. Sure, a house can’t possibly be lifted by balloons, but Pixar imitates life where it counts: people’s emotions and flaws, and the unpredictability and hardships of life.
Children’s stories are supposed to be innocent, not sugar coated. Even though death is a heartbreaking subject, it is a prominent theme in Pixar and other Disney films. Rather than dwelling on tragedy, Pixar shows how we can overcome grief and live a happy life. We shouldn’t paint a false picture of life in children’s heads. Catastrophes happen and most villains are scarier than Captain Hook (your villain needs a weakness, but please, don’t let that weakness be in the head).
Nothing illustrates this better than the scene in The Incredibles where Helen Parr has a heart-to-heart talk with her kids in a cave. She warns Violet and Dash that real bad guys are not like the ones on Saturday morning cartoons. The bad guys wouldn’t be easy on them because they were children and would kill them if given the chance. But, as Helen left, she told them not to worry and that they were stronger than they knew. A children’s story always contains a spark of hope no matter how imposing the antagonist may be.
Pixar’s endings mirror life so accurately that I almost wonder if Monstropolis actually exists. Life rarely goes how we expect and we often don’t achieve our original goals. Instead of providing your characters with a happily-ever-after, create an alternative ending that is satisfying in a different way. For example, Linguini lost the restaurant, but he derived contentment from running a small cafe. Mike and Sulley were kicked out of the university, but they formed a friendship that would last a lifetime. Woody didn’t accompany Andy to college, but he found a home for himself and his friends where they could delight a little girl.
Twelve Questions to Make You Look Back without Distracting You from the Now
Writing for children can be harder than writing for adults because we often forget what it was like as children. Though we shouldn’t treat kids as illiterate nobodies, we must remember that they’re not Einsteins either. But how do you write an intelligent story without making it too complicated? Here are some questions that will help you compose your children’s story.
- Would you have understood your story as a child?
- What books did you love as a child and would still read? Why do they enthrall you?
- What books entertained you as a child but bore you now? Why are they so dull?
- What adult or teen novels do you enjoy? How would you adapt their themes to a children’s story?
- What kind of books did you long for during childhood? What books do you crave now? Is there a contrast in taste? If so, what caused your shift?
- What children’s character did you most admire and why?
As the Years Go By, Your Story Will Never Die
I’ve found more blessings and joy in writing for children than I ever have writing for young adults. Not everyone wants to (or should) write children’s books, but those who have that calling shouldn’t shirk it by writing sloppily or producing another cheap novel. Children desperately need books since they have ample time to read, unlike most adults. Remember, the children you are writing for will be the adults of tomorrow, and if your book is written well, it will live in their hearts to infinity and beyond.
I hoped you enjoyed this introduction post to our Pixar series! Each month Aberdeen and I will break down different concepts into further depth. Please join us next month as we show what Pixar teaches about creating unforgettable characters for children.
*Sambuchino, Chuck, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market 2016 (Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of F+W), 62.