Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 9, 2016

Wardrobes, Tornadoes, and Rabbit Holes

We’re told that children nowadays don’t have wide or steady attention spans. And that a novel’s first page should offer up drama, a setting, a sense of the main characters, and a question that will keep us reading. Did authors in the past have more time to coax readers into stories?

Perhaps some did, but yesterday a student in my children’s literature class pointed out that one reason some movies based on classics seem better to him than the books is because some novels for middle readers sprint at the outpost. We just read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where he pointed out that the four children are swept from London and their parents to an old house in the country in the first paragraph, and four pages later, Lucy is opening a wardrobe door.

Lewis Lion Witch Jacket White

He also mentioned Alice in Wonderland, where Alice goes from reading on a lawn down the rabbit hole in the fourth paragraph.

alice

And the first spoken line in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is, “There’s a cyclone coming, Em.” Four short pages in, Dorothy and a house are whisked off on the wind. We don’t get time to know these characters and their homes before they leave them.

200px-Wizard_title_page

All of these books have some roots in fairy tales, which are famous for fast action and compressed time. But none really employ the sort of characterization and build up of detail that we’re accustomed to in either more contemporary novels or movies.

Maybe children today are challenged to pay attention, but literature suggests that this could have long been so. Are these swift beginnings good ones? Or is it best to borrow some of the fast pace – as E.B. White does with the first line in Charlotte’s Web – “Where’s Pa going with that ax?” – but goes on to have breakfast table conversation that more leisurely develops the characters, time, and place.

 

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Responses

  1. I heard some of this at the conference this weekend, about short attention span. I don’t necessarily think this is true, overall. I think what may be has always been true I that children will give books less time to catch them. At least children lucky enough to have a pile of other books waiting to be dipped into. So, yes, Lucy is into the wardrobe pretty quickly, letting us see, Oh! Narnia! But then we get a lovely and lingering tea with Mr. Tumbus, including a not-short description of his home and a basic history of the problems in Narnia. So maybe we have just a little bit of time to convince the kids our books are worth their reading time and, after we do that, we and they get to play a bit more slowly and a bit more deeply.

  2. What a beautiful thought, beautifully expressed, Becky. Thank you! I do love that tea with Mr. Tumnus, though some feminist eyebrows were raised re what’s the difference between trusting and being sucked in. Though on the whole the Lucy-White Witch dichotomy were admired.

    But back to teas. There was much appreciation for Doing Nothing as expressed in Winnie-the-Pooh, and memories of being told such was wrong even when they were back at the age when they first encountered the 100 Acre Wood.

  3. I also wrote about beginnings today, and even quoted that classic first line from Charlotte’s Web! I was thinking about ways to improve my own writing, but I think kids (and maybe adults, too) do want to be drawn into a story pretty quickly. Once they’re hooked into the story, though, they will sit and listen for as long as we keep reading.


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