What Kids Can Teach Us About Writing for Kids

The past few months I have been revisiting a musical that I wrote about ten years ago, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Musical. I am the art teacher at my school, but since my college degrees are in theatre, my principal asked if I might jumpstart the drama program again. If you are or have ever been a theatre geek, you know I said yes.

Last Fall, I directed Peter Pan Jr. for my middle school, 6th – 8th graders. This was the 23rd play/musical I have directed for students. It was still amazing to watch them jump head first into learning the music, stumbling over dance moves, practicing a sword fight, learning how to fly (and not fall off a ladder). I loved experiencing the thrill of the audience with them again, and the mad desire to do more as soon as the curtain came down on our production.

My post modern take on the set for Peter Pan Jr.

So, I dug out Jack. I wrote and performed it with my students years ago, a different time, a different school, different kids. I knew immediately that if I was going to do it (maybe in the next few years) at my current school, that it would need some work.

I grabbed my copy of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, and broke the script down into beats. Jack was too happy, too naive. He made bad choices with no real consequences. It needed revising.

I sat down at my piano, and rewrote the entire opening, completely re-imagined a song that I didn’t even like ten years ago, and scrapped the entire end. An example below:

The Giantess singing to Jack before: 
"WHAT GOLD CAN DO TO A MAN. HE WAS A FATHER, A SCHOLAR,
HE HAD A REPERTOIRE OF WORDS. AND NOW WHY BOTHER?"
-- We learn nothing about her or what she wants, and it doesn't further the plot. All telling.

The Giantess rewrite:
"MY BISCOTTI IS SALTY AND SWEET.
THIS LAVA CAKE, IS THE BEST YOU’LL EAT.
THE MACARONS ARE JUST A JOY
AND THE MINCE PIES ARE MADE FROM REAL - "
Jack
"Real what?"
Blusterbake
"Boy... don’t you worry about that now.
OH MY MY MY MY MY WE’RE HAVING FUN."
- All showing, with a hint of danger.
Jack and the Beanstalk the Musical 2007

I rescored every bit of music to make it more current, more relatable. Jack became a troubled young man who yearns for more. He gets in fights at school and is angry at the world, for reasons he doesn’t even understand. He climbs the beanstalk, even when his mother tells him not to, because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. His terrible actions have real honest to goodness consequences, and he realizes he already had everything he needed.

It’s fun, it’s angsty, and I was petrified to give it to my students. Would they like it? Would it be something they would want to perform? Were the songs relatable? Catchy? Were the lyrics good enough?

I told my kiddos from Peter Pan Jr. that I was offering a special drama workshop, and that they were going to help me rewrite my musical. They were excited, and about fifteen students showed up. After we read through the script, and sang through all of the music, the young lady playing Jack (an amazingly talented student who was also my Captain Hook) raised her hand.

She said, “Ms. Potoma, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way…”

I thought, oh my god, they hate it. I’m totally off the mark. What was I even thinking! Hide under the piano!

She continued, “When you said that you wrote a musical, we were excited because we thought it would be fun, and you know a lot about theatre.”

Another student (my Peter Pan) chimed in, “When people say, oh, yeah, I wrote a musical – you know it’s going to be fun, but also kind of dumb.”

My Captain Hook continued, “But this is like, a real musical. It’s funny, and sad, and Jack really struggles, and the music is good. You didn’t dumb it down at all.”

Peter Pan, “Yeah, we really like it. It’s really good.”

I wanted to jump up and down and do a jig. I knew that they never would have said that in its previous incarnation, and that the changes I made were good, and they responded to it. Instead, I said, “Thank you. If I’m going to write a musical, I’m going to make it as awesome as I can.”

What they were trying to say was that they thought the musical was going to be dumb. In my experience, many plays for children have overactive narrators and silly characters for silly characters sake. My students were acutely aware of this phenomenon. Working on the revision of this musical was a really good reminder for me that showing instead of telling can make all the difference.

Children are smart, and they know when they’re treated like intelligent human beings, and when they’re treated like little kids. I presented them with three different endings, and together we figured out what the ending was supposed to be. They went dark for a musical. I said, “are you sure that we can make this narrative choice?” And they were sure. “Jack needs to have real consequences for his actions,” they said.

So there you have it folks. Real life advice from real life students about storytelling:

  1. Don’t dumb it down.
  2. Show, don’t tell.
  3. The characters need to struggle, and have consequences for their actions.

Couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Have you found real life advice from real life kids about your writing? Feel free to share with the Writers’ Rumpus!

 

7 comments

  1. This is such a good story, thanks for sharing, Alison! I’m totally committed to the “don’t dumb it down” rule and it’s AWESOME to hear the kids perspective on it. And the rest is good advice, too.

    Like

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