When Big Authors Write for Little People
Filed under: Books for Kids
Long-reigning king of the courtroom thriller and perennial airport bookstore hog John Grisham recently announced his forthcoming foray into children's literature -- Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. The novel will be the first in a series, naturally. All we know so far about the plot is that it follows the exploits of an amateur legal eagle in a small southern town. But do we really need to know much more? Aside from giving us a protagonist in the throes of puberty, it doesn't like Grisham's going too far out of his comfort zone.
But in applying his tried-and-true formula to children's fiction, Grisham is only doing what several other grown-up thriller authors have done before. Let's take a look at kid-lit turns taken by James Patterson, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and Carl Hiaasen, to see how much these bestseller bigwigs altered their typical modus operandi when they were writing for younger audiences. And whether or not it worked.
Carl Hiaasen - Flush (Knopf, 2005)
What's it about? Scat was actually Hiaasen's second kids' book, following the now-arguably-classic Hoot (and preceding the less legendary Scat). It's about a brother and sister who help their eco-terrorist dad expose a floating-casino owner who is draining his boat's toilets into the bay.
How Hiaasen is it? Florida? Check. Sleazy businessman with hired thugs? Check. Environmental themes? Oh, yes. Menacing, tattooed types? Yep. A tough-as-nails broad (and I use the term, "broad," only because it's part of the essence of the character)? Check. Fantastic character names? Jasper Muleman, Paine Underwood, Lice Peeking -- I'd say yes.
Overall Hiaasen-ness: 9 (out of 10)
Does it work for kids? The mix of intrigue, wacky characters, and sticking-it-to-the-man should be enough to keep older kids turning pages. Though, there's also nothing here that wouldn't appeal to adult fans of Hiaasen's work.
Elmore Leonard - A Coyote's in the House (Leonard, Elmore) (HarperCollins, 2004)
What's it about? A feral coyote (disguised as a pet dog) and a show poodle team up to hatch a cat-napping plot with the intent of turning their aging German shepherd friend into a hero and thus helping him regain the accolades of his movie-star youth. Of course, plans go awry.
How Leonard is it? Complicated heist? Check. Bad-boy antihero the girls shouldn't love, but do? Check. Rich girl who is far less prim and proper than she looks? Check. Hollywood satire? Somewhat unbelievably, yes. Harry Dean Stanton even cameos in the story as himself. Briefcase full of cash? Sadly, no.
Overall Leonard-ness? 8
Does it work for kids? While it may look on the surface like Leonard is branching out into completely new territory by giving us a story populated with anthropomorphic talking animals, those animals are all pure Leonard characters. The story is deceptively dark (especially the ending) and morally ambiguous. That said, it's good for young readers to challenge themselves sometimes. (Still, I defy you to find anyone in this book's intended age demographic who knows who Harry Dean Stanton is.)
James Patterson - The Angel Experiment (Maximum Ride, Book 1) (Little, Brown, 2005)
What's it about? A sextet of winged, superpowered kids -- all of whom have been genetically modified with bird DNA against their wills -- escape from the lab in which they are created. They try to uncover the mystery of their true origins while on the run from conspiratorial scientists and mercenary werewolves.
How Patterson is it? Two- to three-page mini-chapters? Check. Exposition sprinkled in where possible among the action ("You can figure out what's going on later -- this plot's gotta move!")? Check. Four hundred pages you can read in about two hours? Check. Jaded cops? No. Gruesome homicides? Not really. Smart, take-charge heroine? Yes. A seemingly endless run of sequels? Yes.
Overall Patterson-ness? 7
Does it work for kids? Absolutely. The Maximum Ride books are the literary equivalent of amusement park thrill rides. Superheroes and short chapters -- what more could kids want? Although, admittedly, these books are great fun for adults, too.
Stephen King - The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Scribner, 1999)
What's it about? King's tale of a young girl who gets lost on the Appalachian Trail and must struggle on her own to get back to civilization alive may not have been originally intended as a children's novel, but it's become one by default, sitting on the Young Adult shelves of many bookstores and libraries. Perhaps that has something to do with the (cleaned-up and abridged) pop-up book version that came out in 2004.
How King is it? Maine? Well, the action takes place on the Appalachian Trail, but our characters are Maine natives. So, check. Long, internal monologues? Oh, yes. Lots of swearing? Check. And from a nine-year-old. $*#%, yeah! Creep, creepy details. Definitely. The supernatural? Not really. Unless you choose to believe that the lost girl's hallucinations are really spirits of some kind.
Overall King-ness? 6
Does it work for kids? It's a very talky novel, weighed heavily toward character study over action. And there's the profanity, of course, which while admittedly less than King usually uses, is still there. Definitely more of a book written about a kid than for one.
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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.