Happy St. Patrick’s Day

It’s days like this that I miss living in Chicago, where they dye the river green in celebration. (Also, notice the white clock tower on the far left in the background? That’s one tower of the Wrigley Building, which I used to work in. It’s like stepping back in time in that building.

But last night my roommate and I watched Waking Ned Devine (me for the first time, she for the umpteenth time) and it was definitely a good substitute. Hilarious. I think all my favorite movies have quirky old men in them–for example, Return to Me is a favorite probably because of those funny old men.

So, let’s talk about quirky characters in storytelling, especially in books for children and young adults. How can a quirky character, perhaps an older person like in the two movies I just linked, bring life to a story while still being a story about the child character?

I can think of two main examples which show what I’m trying to talk about–Holes and A Long Way from Chicago. Let’s start with A Long Way from Chicago, by Richard Peck. This is actually one of my favorite books, and I’ll tell you it has nothing to do with the narrator. A Long Way from Chicago is one of the best examples I can think of where the character you most connect to isn’t a child. While the narrator Joey is a child, and the story is seen through his eyes (and in the sequel A Year Down Yonder, his sister Mary Alice’s), Grandma Dowdel is the most interesting person and she’s the cause of all their adventures.

In Holes, the story of Kissin’ Kate, while not about an elderly person, is a story set in another time-
–and a story that is also integral to Stanley’s journey, though we don’t know how until much later in the story.

Waking Ned Divine doesn’t really fit in this category of older people helping drive the story of the younger—Jackie is the instigator and main character all along—but it did make me think of how often in children’s literature we focus on the child to the exclusion of older adults. It’s important to get the kids away from the parents, for example, to help them have autonomy enough to do whatever the story requires. Don’t get me wrong—I love this plot device, and I know that kids love it. But I do think that there’s a place for amazing stories that include older people and people of previous generations, and that those two books are perfect examples of how that can be done while preserving a narrator that the child reader will identify with.

You have to admit: Grandma Dowdle rocks. That’s one hilarious story, and not just because she reminds me of both my grandmas and my great-grandma, with a shotgun thrown in.