“For Kids” or “With Kids in Mind?”: Thoughts on Writing for Children
A few days, my initial angry reaction to the first episode of Book Three of The Legend of Korra was posted on The Last Airbender reddit page. While the exposure briefly raised my viewing ship (for the first time ever, I reached and surpassed the 1,000 views mark in a single day!), it predictably didn’t win me any new supporters. I only wish they could have seen my follow-up post, in which I re-evaluated that initial reaction with a more reasonable one regarding the entire three-episode premiere of Book Three. Even reading a few more entries from the entire blog (which at least a few of the newcomers might have done) would give them a better idea of where I’m coming from when it comes to Korra and Avatar: the Last Airbender.
Not that it should change any of their own feelings regarding the shows: it’s safe to assume that, if much of your Internet time is devoted to a sub-reddit of any kind, your mind is pretty much made up. Additionally, Internet havens like this generally delve a lot deeper into the mythos and infrastructure of their respective series’ universe than I personally am willing to devote time to. My concerns have always been a little closer to the surface and how Avatar and Korra function as pieces of storytelling. This is how the average viewer will see them (after getting over the initial “is this anime” phase, of course), which is why I find the execution of the stories just as important as–if not more than–the actual content. Intellectual ideas must always be presented within appropriate and imaginative storytelling if they hope to have any chance of reaching the audience.
Which brings me to this fascinating comment from the reddit page that has set my mind ablaze with contemplation for a few days now:
Interestingly, the comment does nothing to refute the second-half of my accusation, which was that the dialogue also lacked personality and invention, two qualities that can go a long way in making even the dumbest dialogue a joy to behold. Just look at Star Wars.
But moving onto the broader point: I agree that writing dialogue (and stories in general) with a younger audience in mind requires a heavier leaning towards directness and simplicity than it would be required if written strictly for adults. But “direct” does not automatically equal “obvious,” nor does “simple” automatically equal “stupid.” If anything, simpler writing requires more care and effort because the writer has to be able to suggest complexity and ambiguity in other ways, often times specific to their medium. And these complexities can be suggested within, around, and between the simplicities themselves.
It’s not the complex ideas that I’m opposed to in Korra. If anything, I’m happy that such notions about change and perspective are being given some light in a children’s show. No, I’m opposed to the way those ideas are so blatantly and insipidly presented. It would be one thing if the overarching ideas gradually took shape based on the amusing and natural interactions of the characters, but because the idea has taken precedence over the dialogue, it feels like a lecture rather than a story. Thus, potentially heartwarming scenes–such as the one where Tenzin talks his kids about what the new emergence of Airbenders means to him and to the world–are ruined by the writing’s failure to make the characters and their emotions seem real to us. Sure, I like the ideas, but as a casual viewer, I don’t want to be lectured. I’m want it to be entertained.*
Stories must resonate emotionally before they can stimulate us intellectually. What children lack in intellectual, they make up for in feelings and in imagination, and that’s precisely what anyone producing children’s entertainment should be catering to. As a kid, I distinctly remember being captivated by The Iron Giant long before I could even begin to ponder its underlying themes of death, the Cold War and its effects on America, the threat of nuclear annihilation, what makes us human, etc. No, what kept my attention was the endlessly entertaining, and eventually touching, story of the protagonist Hogarth and his friendship with the titular iron giant from space. I may not have understood the forces that shaped the story, but I understood enough for it to resonate as a kid. So upon re-watching the film as an adult, I was shocked by how mature and complex the context of this charming story between boy and machine really was. And it made the main story that much better.
This is what should be obligated of works designed for children and adults. The stories we tell kids should resonate more powerfully as they grow up and experience more of life, not fade in significance. The key is to find a balance between entertainment values and intellectual values so that the story intrigues you in the beginning and sticks with you when it’s over. The Iron Giant achieved that balance. Frozen did not, and neither does Korra. And isn’t it ironic that a show whose main conceit is bringing balance to the world doesn’t bring that kind of balance to its own story?
*Martin Scorsese once said, “For better or worse, the American filmmaker is first and foremost an entertainer.” Perhaps DiMartino and Konietzko consider themselves above such American notions, having taken their influential cues and mindsets from anime. If this is true, then the writing of Korra is as much a victim of snobbery as it is a lack of imagination.