Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

Hey, Boo

MockingbirdThe recent release of Go Set a Watchman has created a lot more controversy than anyone expected. (Well, maybe those who knew the contents of the newly published novel had some clue about some of the controversy.) And this post is just my opinion. Plus, I have not finished Watchman. I’m reading it a few chapters at a time to let it sink in.

For more than fifty years, Harper Lee would not – or could not – publish a second novel. We can only guess at her motives, which have probably also evolved over the years. It’s entirely possible she knew what a legacy she had created and didn’t want to endure the firestorm of the publication of Watchman.

But let me tell you why I intend to finish Watchman and ignore all the uproar.

I love Atticus Finch. Unconditionally. The fact that he turns out to be a racist SOB does not in any way alter my love for him or change how I feel about Mockingbird.

Within the world of Jean Louise, we are looking at two entirely different narrators in Scout and Jean Louise. The eyes of a six year old and the eyes of a twenty-six year old should not and could not be expected to see the same things. A six year old will often see a beloved parent as a god who lives up to every ideal. A twenty-six year old should see an aged parent as a human being with all the warts and scars of Dorian Gray. A changed view doesn’t begin to excuse all Atticus’ actions, but it can explain them. And Jean Louise doesn’t try to excuse his actions. In fact, she’s appalled by them. Even the outcome of Tom Robinson’s trial is different in Watchman. That can also be attributed to Scout’s rose-colored glasses.

Within the world of Harper Lee, Watchman is very much a first draft. As a writer myself, I see passages on nearly every page that could have been edited better. Mockingbird is rewritten and heavily edited. If anything, this gives me more respect for editors and reminds me of the merits of the traditional publishing route. What if Harper Lee had self-published Watchman?

Within my world, I am reminded that these are works of fiction. Just because I don’t particularly like the new Atticus, that does not mean I can’t still get chills when the people stand for him out of respect in Mockingbird. In many ways, he’s not even the same character. The themes of racism obviously still need to be addressed. And not just in terms of the KKK South. Let’s use Watchman as a springboard to show how even the best of us need to be aware of prejudices and how our backgrounds can make us less than we can be. People like Atticus exist. Whether or not we acknowledge them.

I will continue to love Atticus, especially the one from Mockingbird, and try to help the one from Watchman be a better man.

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Getting to Know You

As writers, we hear a lot about getting to know our characters. In the abstract, that makes most of us very happy. This means we can have long conversations with ourselves at Starbucks and, when anyone stares, we can just explain we’re working out a scene. Hopefully, that will satisfy the starer.

But, what does this really mean for us? I’ve been working on a middle grade novel for about six years and it’s at least semiautobiographical. So I should know the main character pretty well, right? Oddly, it wasn’t until Mary Quattlebaum, speaking at the recent Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference, asked the right question that a light bulb came on. I think I finally understand all that this character wants. It doesn’t matter what the question was. I’ve always looked at things a little sideways. I just needed someone to use the right combination of words at the right time to help me find her motivation. Writers must get to know their main character. Not to mention their antagonist and secondary characters.

And now I’m thinking of ways to apply all this to all my other works. I’m participating in Picture Book Idea Month (, which brings a whole new crop of stories and, with them, a whole new population of characters. It usually surprises non-writers just how difficult it is to write a picture book. Parsimony takes on new meaning when editors tell you to keep your story under 600 words. Which means we need to know our characters that much better in order to find the salient points. And the main character is often a small child, an animal, or an inanimate object. How does one get to know a Teddy bear? I suggest having the bear travel everywhere with you and maybe keep a journal of impressions. My friend Ellen Ramsey (Twitter handle @SowingIdeas) recently pointed me to an article about Brits whose Teddy bears tweet. ( The part I found most enlightening was that men are twice as likely to set up social media accounts for their bears. As for getting to know small children characters: color in a coloring book, go to the zoo, walk around on your knees, make a huge mess, jump in a pile of leaves, etc. (Okay, I admit this part isn’t hard work. The hard part is holding onto thinking like a child.)

The point is that no matter who the characters are, the writer must get to know them or they won’t ring true. Our youngest children are the quickest to spot phonies.


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