Wednesday 16 November 2011

Children's Book Cliches

A healthy dose of Younger Readers' fiction (the wonder of nature, making new friends, learning who can and who cannot be trusted). (

When attacked by a large creature with fangs, prop its jaws apart with a halberd, or anything handy.

To kill a dragon, hide in a pit and stab its vulnerable underside as it crawls to the river to drink (may be myth No.794).

If your dog disappears, it will be found on a ledge in a quarry.

In caves, the walls are “covered with a kind of phosphorescence that gives a little light.” Sometimes they are “gleaming with moisture”.

When hiding from the enemy, you always give yourself away by treading on a dry twig and breaking it.

You can tell who's nasty because they call childrenbrats”.

You can disguise yourself by staining your skin with walnut juice.

An orphaned boy is the only one who can defeat a terrible tyrant (or dragon).

Twins are separated by destiny.

A band of adventurers quest for a magical talisman, ring or artefact.

When the heroes find a cave stuffed to the roof with gold and jewels, there's always some reason why they can't take any away: an ancient white cobra warns them off, it's guarded by a dragon, they turn into a dragon etc etc Or else a Boring Old Fart appears and lectures them on the fact that money never brings happiness, bla bla bla... or the gold weighs their pockets down and they have to leave it behind… or they take the prettiest jewels and they turn out to be glass.

A dog/horse is bought cheap/found wandering and discovered to have some flaw due to its unhappy childhood, eg compulsive head tossing. New child owners (with help of crusty old avuncular character) retrain dog/horse - will it revert to type at the gymkhana/dog show or win the prize?

An English teacher writes: It's a stepping stone on the way to the trendy adolescent novel about a teenager who's got some flaw owing to a bla bla bla and is reclaimed by a bla bla bla and will they manage to play the lead role in the school play/play solo in the piano concerto in the end-of-year concert/win at sports day bla bla bla or will they go back on the drugs etc? There are only seven plots in the whole of world literature and this is one of them (actually quite a good one too). Examples: a naughty boy in Little Men; hero of good 70s school story, Pennington's Seventeenth Summer, countless boarding school sagas by the likes of Enid Blyton. Of course some of them had a sinister agenda - you were meant to give them to difficult but possibly gifted children to read and say, There, I understand your pain, just do as I say and you too could win the Olympics, sing at Covent Garden, get off with the most beautiful girl in the school etc etc.

In books, it is cool to be a rebel if you do it IN THE RIGHT WAY...

This trend is bucked by the utterly brilliant Huckleberry Finn, who at the end of the novel seems all set for reclamation by kindly good people etc but decides he'd prefer just to p*ss off and do his own thing. 

My mother gave me The Fairy Doll by Rumer Godden when I was a small child – I wonder why? It's about a little girl who's slow and clumsy and nobody thinks her capable of anything. She even has straight dark hair. Is Elizabeth helped by The Fairy Doll, or does she find her own inner confidence? (Give me a fairy godmother any day.)

Per Liz Jones, Diana Pullein-Thompson’s publishers told her she mustn’t give children adult emotions.

In 30s children’s books, children do adult jobs – acting, dancing. When the books were written, 12-year-olds could earn a living, but the law was changed in the 50s. A generation of girls grew up obscurely disappointed that they couldn’t be a ballerina aged 14 like Belle of the Ballet from Bunty – or was it Judy? Nobody explained why. In The Family from One-End Street, by Eve Garnett, Lily says “I’m just living till I’m 14!” She can’t wait to leave school and get a job in Woolworth’s, unlike her swotty sister Kate who gets into the grammar school (cue panic over uniform) and will probably go to university. But I don’t think there were any books about “Lily the Shop-Girl”. Shame.

In the Borrowers series, the tiny people end up being kept in a dolls' house by a human. Is there a parallel with the East Enders being housed in gleaming new towers after One-End Street was bombed? The Borrowers eventually escape.

In every children's TV series there's an episode where a character thinks the other characters have forgotten their birthday.

How not to start your children's book, from the Writer's Digest:

I woke up one morning...
Let me show you round my school.
Meet my best friend and the school bully.
Meet my parents, siblings and pets.
I looked round my bedroom and saw...
I was sitting thinking about my problems when...
My life is so normal and average!
We got into the moving van and set off for the new house.
I looked in the mirror and saw a podgy freckled kid.
The summer job from hell.
First day at a new school - will I survive?

I used several of these in my first novel.

Why not turn them on their heads?
One morning I didn't wake up – and now I'm a ghost.
I'm being home schooled and have no friends.
My best friend is the school bully.
I am the school bully.
It was Christmas Day in the orphanage.*
I sleep in the kitchen.
I am the most well-adjusted person I know.
I wish my parents weren't so Bohemian.
Watch me make the new girl's life hell!

*Rumer Godden wrote this one – The Story of Holly and Ivy.

More clichés here.


  1. Hiding in a pit to kill the dragon at least has pedigree - it's how Sigurd killed Fafnir.

  2. And almost how Bilbo killed Smaug.

  3. Well, Tolkein's academic area was Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, so it's not too surprising that vast swathes of his work - or at least the background to it - were borrowed from that literature.

  4. William Mayne did it too in a strange time-slip story.