Storytelling for All (Or As Many As Possible) Ages – Chris Nuttall

Storytelling for All (Or As Many As Possible) Ages – Chris Nuttall

 The youngest fan I have, at least as far as I know, is fourteen.

The oldest fan, again as far as I know, is in his eighties.

What struck me as interesting, when I started looking back at my emails, was that they shared interests in the same books: Schooled in Magic and The Zero Blessing.

This surprised me, although – in hindsight – it probably shouldn’t.  I wrote both of those series to be YA, with The Zero Blessing originally aimed at younger readers.  On the other hand, I did my best to avoid many of the things I disliked in YA (and younger books) and worked hard to build up a semi-plausible pair of universes.  The characters may be young – Cat is twelve – but they’re not childish.

I was still thinking of this when a fan asked if I’d ever read a book called Bras and Broomsticks.  The title didn’t sound very promising, but the blurb – two sisters, one of whom has inherited her mother’s magic – sounded good.  So I got a copy, read it and … well, I want that hour back.  <Evil Grin>.  There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but the main character is very much an irritating teenage girl with stereotypical concerns (friendships, breast sizes, boyfriends, etc), the plot is depressingly predicable and the moral at the end somewhat trite.  I have no doubt that teenage girls will like the story – it has some good reviews on Amazon – but it wouldn’t have appealed to me when I was a teenage boy.

This started me off thinking about other YA books I’d read as I grew up.  Like most kids in my school, I read Judy Judy Blume and Paula Danziger.  And yet, most of their books have not aged well to me.  The one I loved most, when I was 10, was This Place Has No Atmosphere, a story about a girl who moves to the moon.  This was no Heinlein novel of struggle and survival against the odds.  No, it was a typical ‘teenager moves town, makes new friends, comes to terms with it’ set on the moon.  When I looked back at it, a month or so ago, I found it hard to believe that I had ever loved the book.  The handful of glimpses of future life do not make up for the simple fact that the story itself is just like thousands of other stories along the same lines.

And so I looked back through my old reading lists (and what part of my collection from those days remains intact.)

The books that still spoke to me were written at a number of different levels.  The Worst Witch and its sequels and Hood’s Army are very clearly books for preteens; The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Little House, The Demon Headmaster and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are aimed at older children and young teenagers; Discworld, Heinlein’s juveniles and other books along those lines remain in my collection.  They still speak to me, even though I am no longer part of the targeted audience.  I still smile when I reread Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And why should I not?

(Is it actually a coincidence that most of these books didn’t turn out well when adapted for television or the movies?)

The books that no longer speak to me are legion.  Judy Blume and Paula Danziger are no longer on my list of favourites.  Enid Blyton is now thoroughly absurd; Milly-Molly-Mandy is ridiculously twee.  Nicolas Fisk has not aged well.  There are so many books that I have forgotten, over the years, that have made no impression on me at all.  (And most of them don’t have the excuse of being jammed down my throat at school.)  I vaguely recall reading a teenage romance novel when I was fourteen, but I have forgotten the details.  And don’t even get me started on Twilight …

 Thinking about it, most of the books I still like – and reread, sometimes – have a few things in common.  On one hand, they don’t talk down to their readers.  The Worst Witch is written for children, but it doesn’t treat kids as idiots.  They also have likeable characters: Mildred Hubble, Christopher Chant, Matilda, Dinah Glass and even Harry Potter are likeable and, more importantly, relatable.  (Christopher Chant, Harry Potter and Matilda have moments of delinquent behaviour, but they’re not openly malicious.)  It’s easy to follow their stories and feel for them, even if they live in very different worlds.  One can believe in them.  And, perhaps most importantly of all, the stories aren’t focused on a particular age group.

The books I don’t like break some or all of these rules.

This Place Has No Atmosphere and Bras and Broomsticks, for example, feature teenage girls who are, in many ways, whiny self-obsessed little brats.  The same can be said for most of the other books by the same author (the male characters have the same problem, with predicable results.)  It’s difficult to like such characters, particularly if you happen to be twenty years older than them.  You want to pick them up and shake them for being such annoying little morons.  Other books, such as Twilight are so intensely focused on their target demographic that there’s no appeal to younger readers (who probably find it soppy) and older readers, who are aghast at all the unfortunate implications.

Thinking about it, there’s actually a further issue caused by focusing.  It can and it does turn people off.

There are people who try to ban Judy Blume because she discusses – frankly, particularly for her era – issues such as menstruation and sex.  On one hand, writing about this is a good thing.  Children who are growing into teenagers, then adults, need explanations of what is happening to their bodies, instructions on how to handle it … and, most importantly, reassurance that they are not alone.  On the other hand, these issues are often off-putting if you’re not part of the target audience.  I found Judy Blume’s female-focused books to be uncomfortable, in many ways, and I suspect that many girls think the same of her male-focused books.  Now, I feel that they haven’t aged well (which probably explains why so many parents want to ban them, forgetting what things were like when they were young.)

This has wider implications.  Books tightly focused on a particular demographic will not always appeal to people outside that demographic.  A teenage romance story would not have appealed to me as a teen, still less now.  A story focused on a homosexual character grappling with his sexuality wouldn’t appeal to me either, even though I would have a great deal of sympathy for anyone caught in that position.  I suspect that female readers are put off by exaggerated masculinity – although the success of Fifty Shades of Grey may argue that I’m wrong – just as male readers are put off by exaggerated femininity.  If nothing else, a teenage male who reads Bras and Broomsticks will come away with some pretty silly ideas about teenage girls.

One does not need to discuss adult situations – either in the conventional sense or this – to write a children’s or YA book that appeals to all ages.  But one does have to remember that focusing the book on one demographic tends to limit its appeal to other demographics …

… And that it isn’t the fault of those demographics that they don’t like the book.





  1. No, actually Judy Blume’s “edgy” female focused books were very offputting to a lot of us females. The only girls who were impressed by them were girls who were gullible or had not done much reading. Of course, that was most of the popular girls in my Girl Scout troop, when that stupid Forever book came out…

    But they ceased to be impressed with Blume once they discovered their grandmas’ stacks of romance novels, or the latest bestsellers (Jean Auel came out with all those softporn Cave Bear novels just about then, and there was V.C. Andrews). Blume’ s career seemed to drop off a lot at that point. She had burned her goodwill with parents of young kids, and older kids did not want to read her. She tried to up the ante and nobody bought it. I think there was a Fudge revival on TV a few years later, and for a long time no publicity about her “serious novels.”

    1. Add me to the list of girls who hated Judy Blume. I think mostly because what she wrote about puberty and menstruation was a lie, but also the host of miserable, obnoxious characters. (Similar problem with Anita Diamant, but at least her book I read-The Red Tent-was entertaining.) But it’s been years since I read Blume, and I have no intention of reading her again OR of permitting my kids to read her.

      If I wanted romance in my books, I had Anne McCaffrey, whose female characters Did Interesting Things as well as had Interesting Men Doing Interesting Things to be romantic with. Or Laura Ingalls Wilder. These Happy Golden Years hit that niche as well, and Laura was never a whiney, self-centered brat.

        1. It’s fantasy, complete with made up gods and magic. I mentally shelve Diamant with L’Engle. Same type of take a splash of Genesis, add fantasy, shake well, serve over ice . . . L’Engle’s tasted better.

          Maybe I grew up wrong. I mean, my dad’s a paleontologist. It’s obvious that archeologists do the same thing as paleontologists, just with a human focus, and anything before or not mentioned in written records is limited to facts such as “lots of fishbones with human toothmarks in this garbage pit.”

          People don’t take writers like Diamant and Auel to be anything but fantasy, do they?

            1. Of course not! The one time we visited NYC was to hang out with my sis-in-law, bro-in-law (we talked handguns), and nieces. BiL was, has since retired, a maxsec prison guard.
              We went to the natural history museum.

              I don’t think the literary crowd would have fit in very well.

          1. In all fairness I was under the impression in response to critics Auel did a little better in the later books (haven’t read them so can’t state one way or the other). I’m not saying it isn’t fantasy (I could probably argue most historical fiction over a certain age and/or in certain settings is fantasy and couldn’t be otherwise) but just my understanding is it had better grounding as she went on.

          2. sigh… yeah, they actually do. I’ve run into more than one woman who thought the Red Tent was an accurate take on what ‘things were really like’ back in the days of Genesis. (or something. Wasn’t it Genesis?)

            Sees Sarah’s comment below. And none of them run in NYC literary circles, either. I think it’s more sheer ignorance of history.

            1. Like the idiots in art school who thought Anne Rice’s vampires were “well researched history” — all that crap about Egypt! Or the assholes in line at the grocery store saying how Dan Brown revealed all the secrets. Or…

              1. There was a note at the beginning of that Raquel Welch caveman thing bragging about how they’d consulted paleontologists or anthropologists or somebody when they made up the language.

      1. Same on Blume. I think we were supposed to find characters like Fudge cute and funny. I thought Fudge was an obnoxious brat who needed to be put in time out for about twelve years.

        Strangely, I actually liked her male-focused “let’s deal with puberty” book that I read much better than the female-focused. Partly that may have been that I had no knowledge with whether her puberty discussion was accurate or not, but also it had a much more interesting plot when the character wasn’t obsessing over his body.

    2. What’s interesting is that Auel started the trend towards prehistoric fiction becoming the province of female authors. Could a male author break back into the genre again? Time will tell.

      1. It could happen. I still (vaguely) remember Fire-Hunter, by Jim Kjelgaard. My dad was a fan of his and we once had several of his books.

  2. Hmm. I never read YA when I was the target age… because I found it boring!!

    I blame my neighbor the English teacher, who loaned me a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was 11 or 12. (I read it in about a week.)

    1. Or my uncle, who loaned me his copies of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island during one long-ago summer vacation.

  3. Likeable characters can get away with a lot. And I’ve found it interesting, what readers say about my characters, that I didn’t see. Where I saw a plot necessity that these two characters clash, so one of them goes off for an adventure, readers wanted that mean person to DIE!!!!!! And Alice is not a bad girl, she merely . . . disobeys her parents’ unreasonable demands.

  4. E.W. Hildick was an author I enjoyed a lot when I was young. He also wrote a book on writing for children. It had some extensive discussion on not writing down.

    I probably should try to reread it. It had a case study involving a bum trying to con a young boy, and I’ve forgotten the finer details of what he was trying to present.

    His level of research and not talking down was such that one of his McGurk books, Slingshot Sniper, was cited as for further reading in an adult sniping book I once read.

  5. I can’t remember the piles of YA that I read when younger. Guess that means they weren’t that good. On the other hand, I seemed to skip that stage and went to the meaty stuff. Read Ivanhoe when I was 15 and impressed my English teacher for reading such an “advanced” book. My belief was that half the crap they were peddling for my age group was worthless reading material and I could never understand how some kids could read it. Been an Odd a long time I guess.

      1. Considering some of my teachers, that thought did cross my mind. :/
        Of course the pap they were feeding us didn’t endear me to a lot of genre’s. Took me years to find GOOD Canadian authors after a grade 11 Canadian Lit course I took. Or should I say, be willing to give Canadian authors a shot. One reason why I have never read Atwood, because she comes from the “Canadian Lit” bad side of the spectrum. :p

  6. Other books, such as Twilight are so intensely focused on their target demographic that there’s no appeal to younger readers (who probably find it soppy) and older readers, who are aghast at all the unfortunate implications.

    If only that were true as older *Twilight* fans are responsible for *Fifty Shades of Grey* which has a lot of unfortunate implications.

    I suspect that female readers are put off by exaggerated masculinity – although the success of Fifty Shades of Grey may argue that I’m wrong – just as male readers are put off by exaggerated femininity.

    Something tells me women aren’t responding to the controlling, consent avoiding, isolating stalker as much as they are responding to the millionaire controlling, consent avoiding, isolating stalker.

    Put that book in a trailer park and it isn’t a bestseller and hit movie but a Criminal Minds two parter.

    As for the exaggerated masculinity I would point out it is in the main character’s love interest not the main character. I suspect in a book aimed at young men a similar exaggerated femininity in the character he is to charm would also work.

    That said, I do think Twilight might be a good example of how specific age group focused books can have a broad appeal. It focuses, as does the adult fan fic that turned bestseller, on what seems to be a fairly universal fantasy/dream that even women in their 30s and 40s have: taming the bad boy. That is a stock in trade of romances aimed at adult women.

    So, while the age group focus is tight it still touches on a mindset/problem/fantasy that, while first occurring for that age group, remains as a pleasant fantasy well after. It might keep it from appealing down in age but clearly not up.

  7. I was in a band in college (that should narrow it down!) and we had precisely three performances. One was at the school Coffeehouse (weekly musical performances, some by bands with actual life outside college), one was at the end-of-the-year music festival, where some students asked if we had a CD out, and one was a pre-show to the opening of a musical, where little old ladies asked us if we had a CD out.

    That… was odd. Especially as the best description we ever came up for our music was “anime rock.” But hey, our target audience apparently went all the way from college students to little old ladies…

  8. it isn’t the fault of those demographics that they don’t like the book

    This. My book, should I ever manage to finish it, will have a very narrow audience and I know it. I don’t care. My target audience is people like I was 20 years ago. How to find those people is going to be a trick – but I’ll worry about that after it’s written. I certainly will not blame the non-target audience for not wanting to read it.

    I recently found out that Gay Werewolf Romance is a thing (“genre” seems a bit much). My appeal is not going to be THAT narrow (or so I hope).

  9. Re: Children’s Books, marketing. This Ken Jennings may have chosen poorly.

  10. We got off to a bad start. Dad read the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud as the four of us gathered around his chair when he got back from Vietnam. The two older of us went down the paths ERB laid in the forest or on Mars or on Venus and then we found the master and didn’t stop after The Hobbit. I had a daughter when I was 42. Reading to her was a new experience as she grew up. Finding a way to jam in some Wodehouse, Woodhouse, and Garrett was tough. Her mom drew the line at Kingsbury. I never give up.

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