We can learn so much from reading good writing, and The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson taught me several lessons about writing for young readers, particularly in the fantasy genre. (If you want to read my review of the book, go here).
If you haven’t read the books, I try to keep spoilers to a minimum so that you can read this without worrying.
- The Supportive Parent
This book does something rare that many authors writing about kids avoid: the main characters have a living, intelligent, and supportive parent! Not only is she supportive, but she is a major character in the story.
The reason many authors avoid this is that it’s difficult to give the children in the story true stakes and autonomy when a parent is around. If your character is dealing with monsters, for instance, having a responsible parent may take the pressure off the kids, making them inactive in the story. So it’s easier to simply kill off the parents or make them so oblivious or terrible that they may as well not be there. Harry Potter, for instance, has dead parents, and his aunt and uncle are horrible human beings who, rather than taking over Harry’s problems, actually give him more obstacles to overcome.
Peterson doesn’t do this. While the children did lose their father, which is explained in the first chapter, their mother and grandfather are responsible, supportive, and active characters throughout the story.
So how does Peterson get away with this while still having an active protagonist?
He puts the kids on their own. The main character, Janner, is responsible enough to leave the house and watch over his brother and sister, so this gives them opportunities to experience agency in the story. Yes, sometimes the kids need to be rescued, but Peterson uses these moments to make the children think about what would have happened if they had been on their own. Then, when they are on their own, things are even more frightening.
Part of what makes this work, too, is that the kids have personal stakes in the books that are outside of their family or community. If the stakes were only for the community, the kids could watch as older, more capable adults handle the situation. Because they are being targeted, and because they have abilities that can be helpful, they can’t just hide away. They are forced into action.
Finally, Peterson allows the kids to grow in their skills. In the beginning, they can’t do much to stop what’s happening. But as they grow and learn, they gain more agency.
2. Kids are Kids, Not Adults
Even while Peterson has the kids grow, they are still kids with little power, and so adults are often necessary. But the actions of the adults don’t take away from the action of the kids because you are in the kids’ point of views. The kids are also making their own choices and coming up with ideas to help rather than only doing what the adults tell them to do.
The kids never have to work in place of the adults. This was a slight issue in Harry Potter where the adults were oblivious to what was happening, or Dumbledore was out of town for some reason. The Wingfeather Saga allows kids to join competent adults and find their own place in helping.
3. It’s Okay to Get Dark
I always wonder how dark is too dark for younger readers, and these books found a good balance. The children deal with grief, terror, slavery, violence, and unpleasant knowledge about the world they live in.
What makes this work is that Peterson is writing from a place of hope. He lets the characters go through bad things, but he gets them through it with even more hope and strength than they had before. This creates a catharsis both in the characters and the readers as we watch them overcome each trial. I believe this is tremendously helpful for younger readers who are still learning how to handle difficulties. These stories allow them to vicariously move from loss to hope and learn how to cope.
These stories continually show that hope is just beyond the corner even when everything seems dark. This is something I strive for in my own writing, and you can’t get there unless you are willing to put your characters through peril.
4. Putting Kids in Peril
Like I said, these characters go through a lot. I am often hesitant to do this in fear that the story will get too dark or I won’t know how to pull my characters out of the trial. But these books were a reminder that the more difficulties your characters go through the more satisfying their triumph will be. This is especially true in the second book when Janner is placed in a difficult situation. The stakes were high and the way out was slim. This not only made it hard to put the book down, but it also created the prefect “stand up and cheer” moment.
Sometimes peril comes from the characters themselves, which can be even stronger. Rather than it seeming like the whole world is against them and they have no responsibility for what happens, their own choices can affect the story and make things worse for themselves and others. When this happens, it often takes their own character growth to make things better, so that when the trial is over, they have not only overcome it but have grown in character. We should be trying to pull of these two things at once, and this is a great way to do it.
5. Blending humor with seriousness
Humor is an important part of these books. While I personally struggle with writing humor, it seems natural to Peterson. Often, humor can take me out of books. If the book–and especially the narrator–is too silly, I have trouble believing the stakes. The humor in The Wingfeather Saga, however, didn’t do this at all. It merely brightened the world and made the books more fun to read.
I think this works because of the expectations set up in the first chapter. Woven with the humor are very real problems the characters are facing, such as the loss of their father, the ever-present threat of the Fangs of Dang, and the black carriage that takes away children. Immediately we know that this book will be a blend of humor and seriousness.
This is the best kind of blend, and you can see it in Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and in much of Brandon Sanderson’s writing. Humor adds to the reality of the stories. No single person has one emotion all the time. This would be a burden to the character and to the reader. Instead, we often shift from feelings of sadness or fear or hope or joy or humor.
Not all of the humor comes from the characters’ own perspectives, though. Much of it comes from the world itself, which the characters do take seriously. It’s an aesthetic choice to make the world a little silly, but the characters themselves don’t have to become cartoonish. While some characters are funny and have strange quirks, they are still multi-dimensional and take themselves quite seriously.
All this to say, I’m trying to incorporate more lightheartedness into my writing even as I also try to raise the stakes. While a book of just humor may be too light for me, and a book of all seriousness would be too heavy, I think the blend is just right. The balance is making sure the characters aren’t lighthearted about their situation, and that they are able to have multiple emotions.
This is all I have for now, though I’m sure there are others! Let me know if you read the book and picked up other lessons!