The recent release of the second film in The Hunger Games trilogy, adapted from the staggeringly successful novels by Suzanne Collins, provides the inspiration for today’s post. Whilst the books, and perhaps more so the films, will find favour with a multi-generational audience the stories within them are, in essence, for and about children. Today I’d like to explore this notion. Get it wrong, and the story simply reveals the flaws in a writer’s perceptions of children. Get it right, as Collins has done, and the story will appeal to children and adults alike.
When writing for children there are many traps for the writer to avoid. The imposition of adult tendencies, desires and fears are among the most common. The best crime fiction books written for children stick to a very simple premise. A young child or teenager’s world is largely governed by three things; home, school and friends. Threaten anyone, or any combination, of these things and the impact, is stunning. Children experience fear in a manifestly different way to adults, largely because they are experiencing it for the first time. In particular, issues relating to death carry a completely different significance to a child who has no real experience on which to draw. It is this lack of emotional experience that writers need to tap into in order to be successful. Harness that correctly, allow the characters to grow together as children instead of imposing grown-up constraints on them and a writer will realise that whilst on the one hand, their lack of experience stokes their fear, it also makes them fearless. That conflict alone will drive a story.
We could discuss the global phenomenon of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling as I do believe that these stories are brilliantly crafted examples of crime fiction if you can see past the wizards and witches. However, I’d like to start elsewhere as there is one man who has done more to further the development of crime fiction for children than anyone else. Born in 1862 Edward L. Stratemeyer was, at his peak, one of the most successful writers in the world. His output is extraordinary, and with book sales of over half a billion copies, it is staggering that so many people have never heard of him. He was an American publisher and writer, and his specialism was children’s fiction. A large portion of his canon is dedicated to crime fiction and it includes The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. Through the respective pseudonyms, Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene the publishing powerhouse that became known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate employed dozens of writers to begin a legacy that, in terms of the characters, continues to this day.
The model adopted by the syndicate is simple and extremely formulaic, and it attracted a considerable amount of criticism. Despite the success of the books, many libraries across America refused to stock them believing them to be worthless. This was precisely the argument that Stratemeyer was seeking to exploit. The Hardy Boys series began in 1927 and by this time Stratemeyer was well used to having his books banned from the shelves of libraries. Sadly, for those seeking to muffle him, these restrictions simply drove extraordinary book sales. His stories sought to provide an alternative to the existing material aimed at teenagers, which was largely educational rather than entertaining. Stratemeyer died in 1930, the same year that Nancy Drew was created, yet his syndicate ensured that the stories continued. By his death, he had published over 1000 books, and the sheer longevity of his legacy is staggering, let alone the breadth.
I grew up reading The Hardy Boys and I find it interesting to reflect on the changed nature of the word gang. If you’ve read any of Stratemeyer’s books for children, or perhaps Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven, or The Famous Five, or for that matter ever watched Scooby Doo, then you’ll know that gang has a completely different meaning to the one used today. Today it implies a fight for a small piece of neighbourhood, often involving knives and teenage murder. On the surface, West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet read like love stories, but they are also full of childhood fear, insecurity and clear threats to home, school and friends. They are, in a sense, stories about survival, and that is what children want to read about.
It is also what Suzanne Collins is seeking to examine in The Hunger Games trilogy, and precisely what Edward L. Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate gave to many generations of children.