Some of my teacher friends get cross with me when I use the term “Cattle Poo Chronicles” to refer to the books Kurtzhau regularly has to endure from school.
My complaint is not that these books don’t pass his blood-and-thunder test. Rather, that that they are technically flawed and only “Important” and “Significant” because institutions buy them and make children read them, and because adult critics praise them. Further, I suspect that the children and young people who vote for these books in various award schemes probably don’t have access to the wider range of literature now available to them.
Really, it’s not actually about the subjective opinion of my kids – though Kurtzhau is a canary in this matter. It’s to do with more objective criteria like conflict, complication, pacing etc. These are things you can actually measure. (Though these are not the entire worth of a book, I think they are the prerequisite for having any merit as an actual novel, rather than, say, an essay piece or extended prose poetry.)
Just in case you think I’m biased by my pulpish tastes, let’s compare passages from two versions of Beowulf, one by Mr Morpurgo, and one by the god-like Rosemary Sutcliff. Each passage covers the same transition point: Beowulf arrives before Hrothgar and pitches for a go at Grendel.
First, Mr Mopurgo:
I make that about 500 words. So, how would we summarise this using my the outlining style introduced in Storyteller Tools:
Wulfgar the Herald: These guys look scary, but come I think they come in peace.
King Hrothgar: Beowulf! I knew you as a little boy. Grendel is scary, but I think you can take him out.
Beowulf: Yes, everybody has heard how Grendel is scary, but yes, I can take him out.
OK… so we have three “buts” — three reversals, if you like — and all taking place inside speech. It’s a bit like those scenes in old plays where two peasants meet “I heard King Edward had the better of the battle but is now in poor cheer…”
None of the buts have any immediate implications for the action, though they do establish that Grendel is scary. There’s also no conflict here. I can’t come up with a story question, let alone a QABN (Question Answer But Now).
The chapter outline would read:
Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf to his hall as the last best hope.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s turn:
I make that roughly 600 words, slightly longer, though she could write shorter.
First, note that Sutcliff is much more florid and poetic in her language. That’s a matter of taste. Some kids – and adults – would bounce right off that. However, there’s also a more objective measure; the outline:
King Hrothgar was once kindly, but is now old and grief stricken.
King Hrothgar : Awesome to see you kid, but are you on the run having killed a man?
Beowulf: No, I came to kill Grendel (implied: “but you might not let me take up the challenge). Please let me take a shot.
King Hrothgar: Nice gesture, but Grendel tends to kill all champions that come against him. Please think about this…
Beowulf: But we have thought about it. We want to do it, but accept we might die.
King Hrothgar: Sigh. OK, but let’s party first (implied: might be your last)
I make six buts, making Sutcliff roughly twice as fast-paced as Morpurgo despite her rich language.
Better, five of those were part of a conflict:
Can Beowulf persuade Hrothgar to let him have a crack at Grendel? Yes, but Hrothgar thinks Beowulf will get killed. Now Beowulf must take on an appalling monster.
And the chapter outline would read:
Beowulf persuades Hrothgar to let him attempt to kill Grendel, but even so the old man thinks Beowulf will die.
Comparing these two passages is uncomfortable because in the light shone by Rosemary Sutcliff, Morpurgo’s efforts are exposed as a dry chronicling dressed up with melodrama. Sutcliff, on the other hand, had a literary heart that beat in time to the pulse of conflict.
Unfortunately, it was not the grand old lady’s book that came home in Kurtzhau’s schoolbag.