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Writing Children’s Stories
While fiction and nonfiction books inform, entertain, teach, and influence adults, their children’s counterparts change and mold who children are and become and therefore carry an additional responsibility.
“As adults, we are used to the inaccuracies, distortions, half-truths, and white lies served up in print,” according to Jane Yolen in her book, “Writing Books for Children” (The Writers, Inc., 1973, p. 3). “We read cynically, with a kind of built-in despair we sometimes disguise as sentimentality… We are already changed, you see.”
Children, having yet to lose their innocence, read with an open heart and a pure soul, which exudes trust, truth, love, and unquestioning belief. It is that belief that provides the essence of their imagination, enabling them to create the world in their heads that they think reflects the one on the outside of them.
“… The elements of good writing for children are the same as those of good writing for adults,” Yolen continues (ibid, p. 3). “At times, however, their application needs to be adjusted for readers with more limited knowledge and experience.”
HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE:
Children’s literature can trace its roots to the books that first appeared in Western Europe. Childhood, then not considered a separate development stage, was viewed as belonging to “small adults” who still needed to be guided and instilled with the proper morals.
“Until recently, a common characteristic of juvenile books in all cultures has been the didactic quality, using entertainment to instruct readers in ethical and social behavior,” points out Connie C. Epstein in her book, “”The Art of Writing for Children” (Archon Books, 1991, p. 6).
The still-undesignated genre emerged for two reasons. Certain book subjects and styles, first and foremost, became popular with younger readers, and publishers, secondarily, realized that there was commercial potential in producing them, thus sparking a separate genre.
Very early, but later-famous titles included Aesop’s Fables, written by William Canxton in 1484, “The Hare and the Tortoise,” “Ol’ Yeller,” “Tales of Mother Goose,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” and translations of “Grimm’s Fairytales” from the German and “Hans Christian Anderson” from the Danish.
As children’s literature evolved, it increasingly assumed a fantasy theme with such classics as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” of 1865, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”,” The Wind in the Willows,” “Winnie-the-Poo,” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
Another emerging approach was that of realism, which enabled authors to explore and capture the lives of real people. Well-known titles include Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” Margaret Sidney’s “The Five Little Peppers” of 1880, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” of 1932.
One of the principle distinguishing characteristics of children’s literature is its dual-artistic make-up-that is, it features both text and illustrations. The earlier the intended age, the greater is the percentage of the latter.
“Not only has children’s literature produced fine writers,” explains Epstein (ibid, p. 5), “it has produced a home for gifted graphic talent. Throughout the history of the genre, illustrations and design have been considered an integral part of writing for the young in contrast to the largely decorative function they served in the production of adult books. At times, in fact, the pictures accompanying a story have proved to be more memorable than the text… “
It was not until 1918, or more than a century ago, that the Macmillan Publishing Company established the first separate and purposeful juvenile editorial department and public libraries created dedicated children’s rooms not only to display books, but in which to hold readings and other events.
While adults browse bookstores and Internet websites for titles that spark interest in them, children’s literature is not necessarily purchased, at least in the early stages, by the readers themselves. Instead, it must first pass the “parent and librarian tests,” as both buy what they believe will serve the educational and entertainment needs of young people and they, in turn, determine the accuracy of those who represent them. Based upon age and developing personality, they may or may not agree with their purchasers.
Age also signifies an additional parameter. If it is early enough, “reading” may entail an act done to them, not by them.
Genres are as widely varied for children as they are for adults and include picture, how-to, social science, pure science, and biography books, as well as fictional teenage stories and novels. The author, however, needs to make additional determinations before he undertakes such a juvenile project, including the following.
1) Targeted age group.
2) Chosen genre: fiction, creative nonfiction, pure nonfiction, poetry.
4) Length: This varies from 1,500 words for picture books to 50,000 words for novels without illustrations.
While there can also be variations between age group designations, the following can serve as a guide.
1) Beginning Reader: Books appropriate for this group are generally the picture type, are read by parents, teachers, and librarians, and facilitate the learning process by incorporating participation that enables readers to repeat words and sounds to foster learning.
2) Middle Grade: Books for this 8- to 12-year-old group, which can offer widely varied subjects, can span between 10,000 and 30,000 words, be subdivided into chapters, and contain few illustrations.
3) Older Readers: A third longer than middle grade books, older reader literature, for those on the threshold of the teenage years, can encompass a wide range of subjects, particularly in the fictional genre, but often focus on the changing relationships between boys and girls and can feature peer group themes. The author, however, must become well versed in age-appropriate actions, concerns, speech, and expressions to create believable plots and characters. Phrases such as “That’s so cool” and “That’s so rad” can quickly change with age and progressing generation.
CHILDREN’S BOOK TYPES:
Tantamount to writing effective literature for children is the ability to understand and capture the age-appropriate perspective of the intended reader. This workshop discusses picture books, story books, concept books, alphabet books, familiar-theme stories, campfire tales, and fantasy stories.
As its designation implies, picture books are visually appealing to children because of their abundance of illustrations, which both tell and support the story with the actual text whose word count is usually low. This type of literature, perhaps more than any other, may leave the author with the dilemma of being both a writer and an illustrator, the latter of which may be beyond his capability, thus leaving him with the choice of hiring a collaborative artist or hoping for a traditional publishing house contract, in which case the graphics are created in it.
Because of the prevalence of pictures, it is often wondered if this genre constitutes a book with illustrations or a collection of illustrations supported by words.
“Essentially, there are two views of a picture book,” according to Yolen (op. cit., p. 22). “The fact is that it is a palette with words. The second is that it is a story with illustrations. People who ascribe to the first view are artists. Most writers subscribe to the second. Both are correct.”
Collaboration, in which a fusion of the respective artistic talents occurs, is the key to the genre’s quality. And while the textual author may not be an illustrator himself, what he writes is still, in essence, his story and he needs to provide input and direction.
There are three fundamentals to producing such books.
1) Simplicity: Because of their readers’ undeveloped minds, they must incorporate a single, simplistic idea and not multiple ones. Early-age understanding and conceptualization is limited.
2) Structure: Book lengths are equally limited, usually spanning between 32 and 48 pages of text and illustrations and include the title, the copyright, and the dedication. Pictures should illustrate the story’s action.
3) Readership: Picture books must first appeal to the parents and librarians who purchase them and then to the children who will either read them or have them read to them.
“The storybook tells a small tale in a few words,” advises Yolen (ibid, p. 29). “It is simple, but not simple-minded. Fairly direct, it usually has a small cast of characters, and runs no longer than 15 type-written pages… (It) can be full of magic or mystery or nonsense.”
Concept books deal with ideas, problems, and concepts in a creative manner that both amuses and teaches children within the kindergarten to third grade range. Entailing a specific concept, which is then expanded, they can discuss and illustrate such topics as what is time, what is the difference between big and little, what is rain, where do animals sleep at night, and where does the sun go after dark.
Although alphabet books are ideal introductions for beginning readers and for describing and illustrating something as basic as their A-B-C’s, they sound deceptively simple. Yet doing so effectively and creatively may be more difficult than envisioned.
In their very simplest form, they feature a capital letter and a picture illustrating the word that begins with it on each page, such as “A for apple” and “B for boat.” But as a book, it should incorporate a collective theme or some aspect which strings the alphabetical lessons together. If it entails animals, then the letters should represent them, as in “A for aardvark” and “B for buffalo,” and can be supported by prose or poetry lines like “Aardvarks’ noses are odd, like the length of a rod.”
FAMILIAR THEMED STORIES:
Although antiquated and medieval story themes that include conquered dragons, fought battles, maidens won, and chivalrous deeds are not applicable for modern readers, many of their aspects and characters remain valid if the author remolds them and gives them a current plot. Refreshed, they may still incorporate the same morals and lessons, however.
“Folk stories and fairytales are a way of looking at life, and they carry important messages to the conscious, pre-conscious, and subconscious mind… ,” according to Yolen (ibid, p. 52). “They offer new dimensions to the child’s imagination, suggesting to him images with which he can structure his daydreams.”
“Great Hall” stories are those in which the hero or heroine experiences one magical adventure after another in search of a particular reward and are not unlike those characters in modern times who pursue a path, often paved with internal and external antagonists, to achieve a specific goal or dream.
These Great Hall stories usually have tag openings, such as “Once upon a time.”
There are four types of so-called “campfire tales.”
1) Cumulative stories: Ideal for very young readers or listeners, cumulative stories, which are simplistic in nature, are often read so many times that children begin to memorize them, resulting in classics. Examples include Henny Penny and The House that Jack Built.
2) Talking animal tales: The three integral elements of such tales, which include the likes of The Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, and The Three Billy Goats Gruff, are animals that speak with human voices, a simplistic lesson that results from them, and great fun for early readers.
3) Silly tales: As its name implies, this type of story usually features a numskull character who does something so outrageous that it ends up being comical. A tale written by Ann McGarren, for instance, involves a man and his son who seek to trade their donkey at a nearby fair, but are unable to figure out how to get “the item” there.
4) Magic tales: Characterized by enchantment, magic tales incorporate witches, wizards, giants, ogres, magical animals and objects, and wise men and women, but the author must infuse them with an innovative or fresh angle, since the theme has been exhaustively used.
Fantasy stories can be categorized by those which begin realistically, but quickly merge and morph into strange, astonishing, or dreamlike adventures.
In an essay entitled “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolken, of “The Hobbit” fame, wrote, “Fantasy involves the sub-creative art that is a secondary world in which things happen with arresting strangeness.”
“Fantasy and poetry are natural for children,” stresses Yolen (ibid, p. 53). “The world itself is new to them. A literature which celebrates newness is as natural to them as the world itself.”
Echoing this sentiment, C. S. Lewis wrote, “The fairytale is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what professes to be realistic stories… are far more likely to deceive theme.”
There are three basic fantasy story types.
1) Earthbound: Although, as the designation suggests, the story’s action takes place in the “real world,” one or more of its characters may be fantastical and possess beyond-human capabilities. Consider “Mary Poppins” and her surreal powers.
2) Fairy: Named after the mythical land where fairy creatures allegedly dwell, all actions take place in this extra-terrestrial setting. The Hobbit is an example of one of these tales.
3) Tourist: A character from the ordinary, earthly world travels to another time, place, or even dimension, and all his experiences and adventures play out there. Two notable “tourist” books include The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.
FANTASY STORY CHARACTERISTICS:
There are several characteristics to fantasy writing.
1) Belief: The author and reader alike must have an unquestioning belief in the story, its setting, its characters, and its plot. “You just surrender yourself to your fantasy, if only for the time you are writing it,” advises Yolen (ibid, p. 57).
2) Aspects: There are several aspects that enhance the created fantasy.
a) Place, first and foremost, must be compelling and provide a distinct visual image in the reader’s mind, so that he can immerse himself in this mythical, magical world. One technique for doing so is substituting common terms with fantasy-evoking ones, such as “tunnel cupboard” or “wizard’s warren,” along with descriptions that transfer this imaginary location from the writer’s to the reader’s mind.
b) The characters, secondly, must represent radical departures in name, physical description, action, and even language from the average person.
“Where a realistic novelist might get away with a sloppy physical description, a hasty pan across the features of a major player, the fantasist must work in careful close-ups,” advises Yolen (ibid, p. 62).
Would you, for example, know what a hobbit looks like without having read the book by the same name?
Because characters do not exist in real life, both the magic and method of recreating them in the reader’s mind is through vivid detail. These details will transcend their physical descriptions, however. The author must fully conceptualize their nature-that is, their personalities, motivations, strengths, deficiencies, and quirks, or how and why they are the way they are. A hobbit, for example, is a home body and loves to smoke, drink pints of beer, and tell long stories.
Fantasy characters may shake when they become wet in rain storms or tremble when they see their reflections in mirrors. As occurs in other books, fact or fictional, there may be both good protagonists and evil antagonists in the writer’s mythical land. Most importantly, these characters must be illustrated through communication means, mannerisms, actions, and ways of living and being.
“Toto,” Dorothy said after arriving in the Land of Oz, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Your story should not take place anywhere remotely resembling it either.
c) Style, the third technique, should include word play and sometimes even poetry. Consider the following line. “An old turtle teacher’s name was Tortoise, not because he was one, but because he taught us.”
“The writer lights many candles in a good fantasy novel,” according to Yolen (ibid, p. 67). “The shadows they cast in a child’s soul will last for the rest of his life.”
Novels are longer stories spanning up to 50,000 words, with developed characters and plots, subdivided into chapters. But the main character, or protagonist, plays a more important role in them than in adult fiction.
Because the young reader invariably identifies with him if he is of the same approximate age, this should be the guiding rule for the writer who elects to undertake such a project. How he behaves, thinks, and feels, based upon his home life, experiences, personality, and present development, is integral to how he deals with and reacts to the story’s characters and events. Indeed, character and plot are so inextricably tied, that the former should give rise to the latter as a natural extension.
“The fact that characters have a life of their own also means that characters are plot,” according to Yolen (ibid, p. 91). “A certain kind of person will respond to stimuli in certain ways. Putting a person under a microscope is essentially what a good novel does. The way your selected person moves is a goodly portion of plot.”
Like other genres, nonfiction requires additional skill, since the research and presentation of facts must be coupled with age-appropriate language and structure. The younger the reader, the greater must be its creativity in order to hold his interest, often requiring a unique angle. There are numerous nonfiction subjects. Four have been discussed below.
1) Biography: The most effective way to produce biographies for young people is to explore the human being behind the mask of history.
2) History: Histories require the connection between past and present events. “A steady development of events or facts makes for a steady reader,” advises Yolen (ibid, p. 83). “If you allow yourself many digressions or detours or irrelevancies, your book will be too complex for even the most sophisticated reader. Like a good mystery book, the good historical nonfiction book unfolds tis clues.”
3) Science: Effective science book writing entails age-appropriate language, presentation, pictures, and examples that directly involve the reader and the use of metaphors, whose images enable him to relate unknown concepts with those that are. A computer program, for example, can be considered the “recipe” that the computer itself follows.
4) How-To: How-to literature can include cook- and craft books, whose cornerstone is simplicity, clarity, and precision. Every recipe or project must be presented with easy-to-follow, sequential instructions.
FIVE TOOLS OF WRITING:
There are five tools that can significantly enhance the writing of children’s literature.
1) The Five Senses:
The five senses, including sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, not only provide the channels through which readers can vicariously experience a book’s settings, characters, and scenes, but they are particularly important in creating realism to beginner and early ones. They both identify with the characters and forge a connection with them when their feelings and reactions are similar to their own.
“For those who want to write for children, remembering to include sensory detail in their work is especially important, because it is the essence of childhood,” points out Epstein (op. cit., p. 16). “Impressions are strongest when experienced for the first time, and the child is bombarded by a new sensation in the course of growing up.”
Along with characterization and plot, setting is one of the three major narrative elements. It both affects the characters’ personalities and the plot’s action.
“All settings, no matter how unremarkable, can be made individual, and skillful visualization is not only essential for authenticity, it fixes what is happening to the reader’s memory,” according to Epstein (ibid, p. 28).
Dramatic effect is achieved by describing a setting with the largest impressions and then progressing to the smallest.
There are three potential story settings.
a) Landscape or the outdoor environment.
b) Indoor or interior surroundings.
c) The cultural background and customs of the characters.
“Background gives the reader something to look at, establishes atmosphere, and helps make a story emotionally strong.” (Epstein, ibid, p. 39).
Consider the following short passage.
“When Jonathan woke up, he knew something was not right. There was no light coming through his curtains. His room was dark. His mom did not yell for him to eat breakfast. There was no smell of bacon. He slowly got out of bed and tiptoed to his curtain. Peeking behind his curtain, he saw mounds of snow piled outside. There was no chance that school was happening today.”
Age- and personality-appropriate dialogue, coupled with action and sometimes personal thought (interior monologue), is the principle way an author can create characterization and demonstrate it to his readers.
“Speech is an essential part of storytelling, bringing immediacy to a scene and revealing character,” wrote Epstein (ibid, p. 41). “For one thing, it suggests how old a young person is, and writers for children should spend considerable time matching vocabulary with the age of the child being portrayed… Nothing punctures the plausibility of a children’s story quite as fast as a youngster speaking in the formal phrases that a middle-aged teacher might use… “
Because of the rapid development of children, it may not always be possible to employ exact words and phrases. Instead, the author should express their attitude, viewpoint, and approach, and be aware that there are significant differences between dialogue involving those who are five, ten, and fifteen.
Speech also varies according to culture, family background, and geographic location. A seven-year-old from Massachusetts, for instance, will speak differently than one from rural Iowa who grew up on a farm, and their vocabulary will be specific to these environments.
As with adults, dialogue becomes the secondary expression of personality-that is, it reflects if the character is shy, angry, agitated, introverted, happy, accepting, loving, or aggressive.
Characterization entails expressing personality and individualization through physical appearance, mannerisms, speech, actions, feelings, reactions, and interior monologue. Although personality is in the process of being developed at young ages, it is still present. People may be fact-oriented, interested in sports, warm and supportive, humorous, combative, or avoidant, and these aspects can vary according to circumstance and mood.
Actions, even of a simple nature, demonstrate this. A confident, smart student, for instance, may immediately raise her hand to answer a question in class, while an insecure one may become flushed and hide behind a textbook. The former may sit in the first row and the latter in the last.
Everyone has a unique way of negotiating life and fictional characters should be given theirs.
“To create full characterization, the writer blends speech, unspoken thoughts, and actions together, exploring amusing and touching contrasts that make up an individual personality,” according to Epstein (ibid, p. 53).
Because this applies to children’s literature, their personalities should be appropriate to their ages and the circumstances of the plot.
Main character or protagonist creation can be augmented by determining the conflicts he must deal with-that is, with himself, with others, with a social or peer group, or with the environment.
An inciting incident that places the main character or protagonist in the midst of change and sparks his need for something; the sequence of events, illustrated in scenes and employing both expository and narrative writing, he must negotiate; a climax; and a resolution are the basic elements of a plot.
“Whatever the subject, (plot) should offer interesting possibilities for action, dialogue, and description, so that the writer can work on developing all three aspects of a scene and realize the full dramatic impact,” advises Epstein (ibid, p. 67).
Creation of plot structure can be aided by considering the following four aspects.
a) Urge: What is the protagonist’s need or goal?
b) Barrier: Who or what stands in the way of his need or goal?
c) Struggle: What are the obstacles and conflicts, both internal and external, that the protagonist must overcome to achieve his goal?
d) Resolution: How, why, and when does he do so?
GUIDELINES FOR WRITING CHILDREN’S STORIES:
1) Determine your targeted age group.
2) Understand the children’s book market: Once you have determined the age range for your story or book, it must be appropriate in the following aspects: topic, length, style, and plot complexity.
3) Create memorable characters: Since children invest time in following the journey of the protagonist, they need to identify with him or her, mirroring their own strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits in order to create that kindred-spirit connection.
“In an effort to create characters and settings that they hope will be familiar and relatable to kids,” according to Jenny Bowman, a children’s book editor, “aspiring authors often end up with stories about nondescript little boys and girls living in an unspecified town and dealing with everyday problems. And more often than not, those stories are just plain boring. Children recognize and relate to emotions expressed by characters, and relatability is important, but relatable doesn’t have to mean identical. Challenge the status quo and subvert the default settings. If you are writing a story about a little boy who wants to grow up to be a doctor, ask yourself: What would happen if the little boy was a robot?”
4) Create an engaging story: Engaging stories for adults, or for children as envisioned by adults, may not necessarily be the same as those which younger readers consider so. It must be about age-appropriate topics, experiences, issues, and perspectives. Important to child development are stories in which children are the heroes (not a rescuing adult), driving the action, making decisions, and combating obstacles and challenges. (Note that a childhood obstacle may be to have his best friend accept his cousin, and not how he will pay his mortgage at the end of the month.) Plots should be created to illustrate the work’s theme, which itself can be defined as the insight or lesson reached as a result of the story’s stepping stones. Some themes include loyalty, truth, and friendship, but must be child-appropriate. Betrayal, for example, should not be illustrated by the discovery of a cheating spouse, but instead by a backstabbing best friend.
5) Cultivate your author voice: Although it is important to create and maintain a specific voice, which can be defined as “personality on paper,” this is not likely to be appreciated or even understood by young readers. Nevertheless, there are some stylistic techniques to consider.
a) Use age-appropriate vocabulary, keeping in mind that a child’s still-developing brain is incapable of understanding complex, multi-syllabic words, at least during the early years. He may understand the word “happy,” for instance, but not “jovial” or “elated.” On the other hand, the author should refrain from “speaking down” to his readers is if they were mentally handicapped.
b) Avoid rhyming verse: Unless you have mastered the technique of generating rhyming couplets, such as the time-immortal “Jack and Jill went up the hill,” and are writing for toddlers who may be more positively influenced by the rhyming sounds than their words’ definitions, avoid this style.
6) Determine your need for an illustrator: Picture books, appropriate for very young children who learn more from visual images than vocabulary, are those which incorporate relatively equal ratios of text to illustrations. If you intend to write such a work and self-publish it, you will require a professional illustrator if your own ability to generate artwork is minimal. Consider the following sources for such artists: The Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators and/or Reedsy.
Before you select an illustrator, determine his style, quality, and technique by inspecting his portfolio; obtain price quotes in writing; and ensure that meeting-of-the-minds expectations are author and illustrator identical.
Epstein, Connie C. “The Art of Writing for Children: Skills and Techniques of the Craft.” Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1991.
Yolen, Jane. “Writing Books for Children.” Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1973.
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