You can have the best plot in the world, but without children's book characters who are bound to become favourites it is going to fall flat.
If kids can’t connect with the story book characters going on a journey, the magic stops right there. Reading becomes saying words instead of imagining how the tale is playing out.
So what kinds of characters are kids drawn to? Should they be something that children can see in themselves? Should they be cartoon characters? Should they be famous childhood characters that have stood the test of time, like Little Red Riding Hood?
Not surprisingly, parents’ perspectives on what makes good reading for kids is very different to what kids tend to pick out for themselves.
Kids are usually drawn to characters that are some combination of smart, brave, and strong.
However, having all three of these together can be intimidating for a reader.
It is good to show spectrum and weakness early on in children’s books. Readers can admire these characters for how they excel in some areas, and also empathise with them when they can’t ‘do it all’.
Harry Potter is a great example of a character with weaknesses. Not only does he enter a new, magical world with no context or savvy, but he is hot-headed and impulsive. Throughout the series, this moves the story forward as he creates problems for himself. While he still learns and grows as a character, he is never perfect. This makes him human and interesting for all readers, not just young ones.
Another popular storybook character who strengthens the book with their shortcomings is the robot Roz in The Wild Robot by Peter Brown. Roz washes up in the wilderness and soon finds that nature is not a forgiving place for a mechanical being. In the early pages, she accidentally causes a family of geese to die and adopts the only remaining gosling as her son. Life continues to be hard for her as she navigates the gap between the natural and the built, and this provides compelling reading and genuine connection with her character.
A tried-and-tested method for favourite book characters for many readers is having a group of friends that are the full package together, each having strengths and weaknesses that others balance out. Having one character being able to do everything gets boring. Having a group who need to work together presents more tension and drive.
There are so many classic duos that show the problem-solving power of a team with varied skills. Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad always encounter situations on their adventures that one or the other is more adept at dealing with. When they try to work in isolation, things always go wrong. When they work with their best friend, life is much easier.
Another pair that complement each other very well are Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggie. Gerald the self-conscious, timid, but thoughtful elephant has a knack for solving problems that call for loyalty and consideration. On the other hand, Piggie is a very excitable, flighty character that acts first and thinks second with the ability to get through with positivity and perseverance. Each of their weaknesses cause events that require the friends to stick together and see things though.
Children also like reading about characters overcoming challenges, as this is an empowering experience. Kids’ problems are often brushed away by adults. They are told that they are being dramatic or that it isn’t that bad. But in the moment, it really is.
Children bond with characters who are able to take charge in moments of distress as they often have little agency themselves. They get starry-eyed over characters who are able to tough it out in tricky circumstances, and often think back on this when they are having their own struggles.
Whether a child is experiencing bullying, is overwhelmed by homework, or even just doesn’t want to eat a meal in front of them, they often have a loop of how a favourite character might deal with the situation in an alternate reality. This can be calming and strengthening, even when they still have to face reality themselves.
An example of a character who overcomes adversity is Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, the protagonist from the How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell. Hiccup doesn’t fit into the Viking life in any way, shape, or form. He is broadly considered fairly useless and a liability. However, he pushes through with his interests and talents, even though those are not shared by his community. By setting his own path, Hiccup demonstrates his value to others and becomes a treasured member of the clan.
Roald Dahl’s huge variety of amazing characters always have to suffer through trials before they are appreciated. Charlie Bucket was tied down by the weight of poverty, Matilda Wormwood by being the only booklover in a house full of television addicts, and the nameless protagonist of The Witches had the rather difficult challenge of having been transformed into a mouse. Dahl’s wonderful stories always show how the little guy can come out on top, and are classic underdog tales for all readers.
Finally, it is very common for children to be drawn to characters that are animals, aliens, monsters, or magical creatures. This is very understandable, as these creatures transcend so many of the boundaries and issues with diversity that come with human characters.
With creatures, they are not tied down to being of a certain ethnicity, background, faith, or any of the other details that might be placed on a human character. Due to this, they have a broad appeal as they can apply to every demographic.
This also allows children to take a step back from a lot of the expectations and rules that they have for the world, and gives them a greater space for creativity and imagination. While events or themes that come up in the story might have links with their own life, the process of removal and distance gives them the room to revisit these in a fresh way.
A lovely example is A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books, where the toys provide the space away from the restrictions of human characters. By removing demographics, characters are purely represented by their personalities and interests. This makes the stories highly accessible and something that can transcend social barriers.
Tove Jansson’s Moomin series, a world full of magic and possibilities. The family and friendship dynamics in these novels are gorgeous explorations of wit and whimsy, sure to get kids thinking asking their own questions about the world and the way that people connect. The step away from familiar structures allows for a new take on day-to-day happenings.
Next time you are choosing a book together, have a chat about your little reader's favourite characters. It’s a great way to learn more about them.