Character building

Who’s that girl?


Clarice Bean is a curious, opinionated, passionate litte Brit. For a girl of around nine or ten, she has quite the caustic wit and a very interesting world view. She is also hopelessly, utterly committed to her one true love — the Ruby Redfort spy series.

If, based on my description, you’re not sure whether Clarice Bean is an actual child or a book character, thank author Lauren Child. London-based Child, creator of Disney’s Lola and Charlie, came up with a character so lifelike and irrepressible that it’s nearly impossible to think of her as anything other than absolutely, positively real.

For moms (or dads) wishing to dip your toes into the scary, scary waters of fiction writing, one truth must guide you: without character you’ve got nuttin’. Sorry about the mob-boss vernacular. No coffee yet.

In a Don’t Look Now (5.99, Candlewick Press), part of an inventive Clarice Bean collection that combines part picture books with middle-grade readers, illustrator/author Child infuses her unique little lady with an authentic voice that makes Clarice Bean too yummy to ignore.  Although previous engaging Clarice Bean stories have been written in picture-book format, Don’t Look Now is a first-rate middle-grade novel that keeps you wondering what is this girl going to do next. Whether your children are just the right age to enjoy Miss Bean or if they’re way too filled with teenage angst, too preoccupied with finding hairs in peculiar places on their bodies to care about a sardonic grade-schooler, do not be deterred. You must think of it as proper research.

While you’ve been stashing away ideas based on great and amazing story-ideas, plots that take us on adventures, spirit us to distant lands or thrust us into hostile futures, remember the most important thing: no one wants to take such a journey with a boring main character who is forgettable as soon as we put down the book. Whatever fictional adventure you’re planning, it all begin with character. Who is that girl? Why do we care about her? What is she afraid of? What change does she fear most? What will change her most by story’s end?

Don’t Look Now takes us into the Bean household at a time of tremendous turmoil and change. Marcie, Clarice Bean’s older, much, much wiser sister, sets up a mega catastrophe when she ignores running water in the tub because she’s taking a very important phone call about boys and school and friends and such. Faster than you can say, “LOOK OUT BELOW!” Clarice Bean has water dripping into her cereal and the ensuing chaos causes Clarice Bean to wonder how things could get any worse. Well, of course, things do get worse when she learns her longtime BFF Betty Moody is moving to another country, and thanks to the mess Marcie made in the bathroom, the Bean family could be ditching Clarice’s beloved home. How does our girl handle the hardships? Ahh, that is the question.

After reading Clarice Bean or any favorite young fiction, imagine inviting that child over for a play date with your kids. Picture her in your kitchen or den or the bedroom of your child. Now imagine some catastrophe strikes — a thunder storm that kills the power, a tree falling into the driveway and crushing your car and their bikes, a toilet that overflows into the hallway. Whatever. How would your child handle the calamity? How do you think Clarice Bean would handle it?

If new writer’s allow themselves to get comfortable putting their make-believe people in the real world, it will help take two-dimension ideas and turn them into three-dimension personalities.

Character is first. Period. So go get yourself a big scoop of character-building goodness. Read Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now. Child’s deft handling of language, setting and milieu will instantly jettison you into the world of an intrepid young person who definitely leaves an impression. The quiet, yet insistent repetition of her young character’s full name, Clarice Bean, throughout the book, drives home the notion that this is not a child to be forgotten. Remember the name, and your assignment.

Ta, ta for now, my darlings. I’m off. My coffee awaits!

One thought on “Character building

  1. My daughter, Bryn (9) still loves Charlie & Lola, so she’s sure to love this book. I really like how you slice and dice the characters here. I see these girls as a more modern Beezus and Ramona. Who doesn’t love Beverly Cleary??

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