Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, asserts that “[g]reat characters are the key to great fiction” (Maass 103) and I believe the difference between these two novels lies in their lead characters. I am under Julian's spell, and I am not the only one. Each year in the spring, I begin to read chapter books aloud to my kindergarten class, always starting with The Stories Julian Tells. Before reading, I explain that the book doesn't have very many pictures but that the stories are so good that they will enjoy them all the same. This announcement is unfailingly met with skepticism by my multi-media generation students. Then I start to read:
My father is a big man with wild black hair. When he laughs, the sun laughs in the windowpanes. When he thinks, you can almost see his thoughts sitting on all the tables and chairs. When he is angry, me and my little brother Huey shiver to the bottom of our shoes. (Cameron 2)
It isn't long before Cameron's lyrical language laps away my students' reservations, luring them into the warm waters of her words. After a few pages, I ask, “Is this boring? Should I stop?” The answer is always a resounding, “NO!”
Henkes has his own poetic gems, yet day after day, it is not Cameron's masterful use of language that makes my class clamor for more. The chant at story time is for “More Julian!” Of course, this is a class of five and six-year-olds. Even in my classroom, where story time and writer's workshop abound with alliteration, onomatopoeia, and simile, I would hardly expect my kindergarten students to insist on “more of those beautiful words.” Yet I find it interesting that the cry is “more Julian.” Not “what happens to Julian?” or “what does Julian do next?” but simply “more Julian.” It is indeed Cameron's character that commands their attention. Whatever happens to Julian, they trust that it will be interesting and worth their time.
In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass also states, “The characters in your story will not engross readers unless they are out of the ordinary. How can it be otherwise? In life, ordinary folk do ordinary things every day. How much of that do we remember? Precious little” (Maas 105). Why then, does Julian enrapture my class? He is no Power Ranger, no WWE wrestling star. He is a boy, a little boy even, perhaps seven years old (exact age unspecified). He lives with his father, mother, and little brother in an ordinary house – not too big, not too little. He goes to a typical school, plants a garden, watches the new neighbors move in.
Unlike Billy in The Year of Billy Miller, Julian does not have a bump on his head from a spectacular accidental fall, a quirky, artistic stay-at-home dad, a sister who lugs her five stuffed whales around in a pillowcase all day, or a teacher who wears red chopsticks in her hair and uses a gong to quiet her class. Julian's characterization, a term defined by Robert McKee, author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, as “the sum of all observable qualities of a human being” (McKee 100), is simple. Essentially, he is your average Joe, just age seven. Or is he?
Maass admits that ordinary characters may be used, “[i]t just requires identifying what is extraordinary in people who are otherwise ordinary” (Maass 104). By contrasting Julian's simple characterization with the revelation of his complex true character in moments of pressure, Cameron shows the extraordinary within Julian's seemingly ordinary life.
In the opening pages of The Stories Julian Tells, Julian seems a model child. His description of his father (see first quotation) shows respect and admiration. When his father makes a pudding as a surprise for Julian's mother in the beginning of the book, Julian minds his father's admonition to leave the pudding alone, even being a dutiful older brother and reminding his younger brother Huey of their father's words. However, when Huey breaks down and sneaks a taste, Julian's true character is revealed. Under his characterization of the model big brother/son lives a streak of curiosity and mischievousness.
Julian sticks his own finger in the pudding, giving way to wild abandon as he and Huey consume most of it. Crumpling further, when Julian realizes what he and Huey have done, he doesn't go confess to their father. He takes Huey to their room to hide under the bed. What child has not longed to sneak a taste of pudding, a piece of candy, a cookie from the cookie jar? Cameron recognizes this longing in all children, even those who hide it beneath a “good” exterior, and this scene not only reveals a contradiction in Julian's appearance and behavior but makes him sympathetic to young readers.
A delicious contradiction is also revealed in Julian's father. When their mother returns, their father takes her to the kitchen to see the pudding he made for her, a scene that Julian and Huey hear from their hiding place under the bed:
“Look,” said my father, out in the kitchen. “A wonderful pudding.”
“Where is the pudding?” my mother said.
“WHERE ARE YOU BOYS?” my father said. (Cameron 9)
This is the point where all my students “shiver to the bottom of their shoes” for Julian. Cameron plays this tension beautifully, as the father stomps through the house looking for the two hiding boys, pulling them out from under their bed by their feet when he finds them and announcing, “There is going to be some beating here now! There is going to be some whipping!” (Cameron 12).
My students expect a serious spanking, and none of them would deny that Julian and Huey deserve it. Yet when the father says beating and whipping, he means of eggs. When the two boys are hauled out to the kitchen for their beating and whipping, this is what their father gives them. They are to right their wrong by making a new pudding for their mother. This is a contrast of characterization and true character with powerful lessons: that even good children do bad things on occasion, that mistakes can be righted, that parents can respond in other ways besides spanking. All this, and we've only read the first chapter.
The Year of Billy Miller lacks these contradictions. Instead of being characterized as an ordinary boy, Billy Miller's characterization is extraordinary. He is a boy who survived a head-first fall from the lookout platform on the Jolly Green Giant statue, “miraculously unharmed...except for a lump on his head” (Henkes 3). His worry is perhaps natural to his character: after his fall, will he be smart enough for school? Yet he only worries this rather ordinary worry after overhearing this conversation between his parents:
“I'm worried about him,” said Mama.
“He's fine,” said Papa. “Everyone said he's fine. And he seems fine. He is fine.”
“You're probably right,” said Mama. “But I worry that down the line something will show up. He'll start forgetting things.”
“He already forgets things,” said Papa. “He's a seven-year-old boy.”
“You know what I mean,” said Mama. She paused. “Or he'll be confused at school. Or...” (Henkes 4)
At the end of the chapter, Billy gets up the nerve to tell his father he's worried about school and his father reassures him by saying “I know – and I know everything – that this is the year of Billy Miller” (Henkes 10). This momentarily comforts Billy, who still isn't quite sure he really is smart until his teacher tells him so several chapters later.
Where is the contradiction here? Billy already overheard his father telling his mother not to worry, are we surprised that the father says there's no reason to worry? At the end of the chapter, both father and son are what they were at the beginning. There is no growth. Worse, what about those children who worry whether they'll be smart enough for school without bumps on their heads? Henkes has created an extraordinary characterization but a lackluster character.
On the other hand, not content to merely contrast characterization and character, Cameron develops a character arc for Julian within each chapter. The second chapter of The Stories Julian Tells, Cameron shows Julian's character growth and introduces new contradictions.
Julian has already revealed his mischievousness in the first chapter, so we are not surprised to see him spin a whopper for his brother now. After Julian tells Huey that catalogs are where cats come from and that when you open them up the cats jump out, the reader expects that Julian will run and hide again when their father announces that their gardening catalog has arrived, especially when Huey's enthusiasm and Julian's lies have continued for days. Julian would like to run away again, he admits, “I was thinking about going someplace else” (Cameron 23), but he doesn't. He stays this time, despite the trouble that is about to unfold, even though “[w]hen my father's voice gets loud, mine gets so small I can only whisper” (Cameron 26).
And what will the father do this time? What punishment awaits from the stern father who made his boys beat and whip eggs until their arms ached from making a replacement pudding? Will Julian not be allowed to order from the catalog? Will he have to spend his allowance to get a cat for his brother?
No. In yet another contradiction, the father lies, extending Julian's story by explaining to the crying Huey that catalog cats are invisible. Not content with this, Cameron lets the father spin the tale on and on for another three pages. An ordinary situation, that a child tells a lie – an extraordinary response. This produced a wonderful debate among my students, some proclaiming that you should never lie while others pointed out that the father was only trying to comfort Huey.
The third chapter has Julian sneaking out to the garden at night, wanting to believe the catalog cats are really there. Another contradiction. He knows he lied to Huey and he is too old to believe, but he doesn't want to let go of the promise of magic just yet.
Julian frequently gets himself in trouble, which provides many opportunities for showing his true character as well as personal growth. Billy Miller gets in trouble as well, but his trouble is accidental. He mishears a classmate saying that her nickname is “Emster” and thinks she said “hamster.” Naturally surprised, he clarifies, “Hamster?...Your name is Hamster?” (Henkes 22) and manages to be overheard by the rest of the class. Later, upset after this same girl has called him dumb, he makes fun of her by using two red markers as devil horns, only to realize that when his teacher sees, she thinks he is making fun of her: “She thought that the two red markers were meant to be her two red chopsticks. She thought that the ugly face he'd made at Emma was supposed to be an imitation of her, Ms. Silver” (Henkes 26).
Neither of these accidents surprises us, Billy was at odds with Emma from his first meeting with her, when he accidentally sat in her seat. Of course he is upset about upsetting his teacher, he's a good kid and from the very first sentences of the book the reader knows he's worried about doing well at school: “It was the first day of second grade and Billy Miller was worried. He was worried that he wouldn't be smart enough for school this year” (Henkes 1).
But because the trouble Billy gets into is accidental, he has no opportunity for character growth. He makes a gift of silver colored objects to bring to Ms. Silver to show her he is a nice person, but he never did anything mean to Ms. Silver. Ms. Silver is not the person he needs to reconcile with, and his conflicts with smarty-pants Emma “Emster” are left unresolved.
There is no test of character, no trial for Billy to prove to himself that he is smart, he merely seeks these words from adults. Billy's characterization makes it clear he worries about what adults think. They reassure him that he is smart, but I wanted Billy to find out himself that he was smart. Never mind what the adults think. What does Billy really want? What are his deepest fears and dreams?
Every year, I also read Langston Hughes's poem, “The Dreamkeeper,” to my class. Without fail, the line, “That I may wrap them in a blue cloud-cloth, away from the too-rough fingers of the world” (Hughes 2) chokes me to pieces. I want my students to be able to share their dreams with me and I want them to be able to achieve those dreams. The line resonates with my students as well, who understand about tucking special things away to keep them safe. What are our dreams but our most special things, the deepest desires of our hearts?
In The Stories Julian Tells, we are asked as readers to be dream keepers for Julian. By exposing Julian's true character, Cameron opens Julian's own blue cloud-cloth and offers my young listeners his dreams: to be so bold as to sneak a taste of pudding, to be man enough to right his mistakes, to believe in magic, to be at peace with being afraid sometimes, to find a friend.
There is an intimacy that comes from sharing these dreams, for a shared dream implies that we, too, could achieve it and “[w]e read fiction not just to see ourselves but also to imagine ourselves as we might be” (Maass 108). Julian's ordinary dreams are achieved in extraordinary ways and in revealing the extraordinary within the ordinary, Cameron dares us to dream that our own ordinary selves might just be extraordinary, too.
Cameron, Ann. The Stories Julian Tells. Illus. Ann Strugnell. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981. Print.
Henkes, Kevin. The Year of Billy Miller. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2013. Print.
Hughes, Langston. The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. Illus. Brian Pinkney. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Print.
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2001. Print.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and Principles of Screenwriting. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Print.