Monday, August 10, 2015

In Praise of Prickles by Kell Andrews

Not every thorn has its rose.
Nobody wrote prickles like Diana Wynne Jones.

I'm reading her Dalemark Quartet for the first time, and it strikes me again how prickly her characters are. From The Spellcoats (Book Three):
Robin wrung her hands. ... It annoys me when she does.

"We can go away down the River and find somewhere better to live," I said. It was the most exciting thing I had ever said. I had always wanted to see the River. ...

"But the Heathens!" Robin said, wringing away. I could have hit her.
The narrator Tanaqui is not nice. She isn't patient or kind. She sulks when she doesn't get her way, she teases her brother and snaps at her sister, and she turns out to be a hero in the end. Even then, she's still not nice.

In Jones's most popular novel, Howl's Moving Castle, Howl is vain, lazy, and not very brave, but it's Sophie who we root for as she becomes less nice.  Disguised as an old woman, she discovers her inner curmudgeon -- commandeering and no-nonsense, where once she was timid and compliant. She gains an edge. This is character growth in the world of Diana Wynne Jones, and that's why I love it.

Middle-grade characters are often so nice. They do the right thing. They even feel the right thing. They have flaws, but their flaws are the kind of answers they could give to a potential employer who asked them their biggest weakness in a job interview.

"I'm too much of a perfectionist."
"I care too much about how others think and feel."
"I have many unique qualities and quirks that are not always appreciated."
"Other people are intimidated by my intelligence and competence, as well as my world-saving magical gifts."
We have a higher expectation of morality from children. Everyone must play together, everyone is invited, everyone should be nice. This higher expectation is doubled for child characters -- there is a lot of "should" in children's literature, and readers like it too, and not just parents. When I was a kid, I adored perfect princess Sara Crewe but couldn't warm to sickly, fretful Mistress Mary Quite Contrary.  And I still love a transcendentally good character --  Auggie Pullman in Wonder, Felicity Pickle in A Snicker of Magic.

Readers want to spend time with likeable characters. They want to see themselves in characters they wish they were -- mirrors and windows, yes, but mirrors that show a particularly flattering reflection or a windows that let in the most attractive light.  Who wouldn't rather be Harry Potter rather than jealous, dim Ron or know-it-all Hermione? Ron and Hermione have prickles. Harry is nice, as well as being the Boy Who Lived, Hogwarts Champion, the Griffindor Seeker, and all-around BMOC. Maybe that's why Rowling's Harry Potter is more popular than Jones's Christopher Chant.

Children's literature past and present has its share of Pollyannas, including the title character from Eleanor H. Porter's novel whose is synonymous with unshakeable optimism and goodness. Maybe that's why middle-grade characters with prickles stand out, and why I like them so much. Even when you're saving civilization, your little brother might still get on your nerves. Probably especially then.
Who are some of your favorite prickly characters?


  1. I love prickly characters! They make great secondary characters -- but it's extra challenging to make your MC prickly and still really likable.

    I agree about Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle!

  2. Harriet from Harriet the Spy. And my all-time favorite, Ramona. Though not truly middle grade, there's good ol' Huck Finn. I like him so much, the character I'm working with right now is based on him.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!