A few weeks ago, Dave King posted a marvelous piece here concerning lessons to be learned about creating surprise by analyzing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, specifically his Fantasia and Fugue in A minor. In the comments following the piece, I remarked that I had had a similar revelation about lessons to be learned from a non-verbal art form from a much different source: stories for children,
One of the great joys of having friends with wee ones is the ability to buy them picture books. One particular favorite, which I’m going to discuss here, is Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown.
The story in brief: A farmer, tilling his vast empty fields in solitude, sees a tiny clown accidentally bounce off a circus train passing by his land. He takes in the tiny lost clown and tries to console him, performing what few tricks he knows, then showing the little guy how to help with the chores. Basically, the little clown becomes something of a farmer while the farmer rediscovers his inner clown. The circus train circles back, and the clown is reunited with his loving family. The farmer, once again alone, cheerfully waves goodbye to his little friend. (Surprise ending, which I will not spoil for you.)
By the way: There is a video of The Farmer and the Clown available online that tracks through the images that make up the story. However, it’s not the same as having the physical book in your hands, and I strongly advise watching first with the sound off.
I have also recently been exposed to the Russian-produced Masha and the Bear. This is an ongoing video series with numerous episodes, all of which concern the introduction of a disruptive force (Masha) into the contented life of the Bear, who was once a performer with the Moscow Circus and now hopes to enjoy a tranquil retirement in his cottage deep in the woods.
These stories, stripped of words, reminded me of a few basic truths about narrative, which can often fall by the wayside as we address the many other challenges of fiction—and get lost in our language. The things I discovered turned out to be pretty fundamental, and the more I thought about them the more I saw them in the more “adult” literature I have found so compelling.
In particular, the three main lessons these two particular children’s stories brought home for me were:
- The emotional charge between opposites
- The power of image
- The mechanics of escalation