Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
Once upon a time, I was a kid and easily impressed by heroes. I’m going to guess this was at least partly due to the style of illustration that was in vogue at the time. Poster artists like the great Drew Struzan depicted their protagonists in striking poses, with a flattering light shining just so. Quite often, the hero was surrounded by other faces–friends and companions–with perhaps the scowling antagonist in the distance.
Check out Struzan’s website portfolio and you’ll see what I mean. If you’re a child of the 70s and 80s, like me, you’ll have grown up with some of these posters, possibly hanging on your bedroom wall. Younger people will know Struzan’s work from the fantastic Harry Potter posters and the Star Wars prequels. His subjects are people at their very best, even in the middle of a battle–an idealization of the human spirit, if you will.
As a kid, I lived for this stuff. I owned many a movie poster, but I also snatched up gorgeously illustrated books (even if the story wasn’t so great), and even kept a scrapbook of clippings from the TV Guide. I suppose, because of this, I grew up thinking that the best thing in life was to be the hero of a story. I liked to think of myself as the protagonist of my own adventure, bound to overcome the obstacles and win in the end. I’d stand under that imaginary glow (while it highlighted my hair and did wonders for my complexion), staring off into the middle distance–or maybe looking directly at the camera in a knowing, charming way–surrounded by other people whose slightly smaller head size indicated they were not quite as important as me.
John Williams was writing the score, of course.
If this was you, too, then welcome to my clubhouse! If it wasn’t, blame Lucas and Spielberg for creating and warping a little geek like me.
Earlier today, I was sitting around at work, when a co-worker asked this question–“If you could go back to one summer of your life and relive it–which one would you pick, and why?” (Yes, this is the kind of thing we talk about at work. I feel very lucky to have a job where the downtime can be filled with Deep Thoughts and funny internet cat videos). Each of us told of a summer we’d choose and all the stories were different–different ages, different locations, different activities. But at the same time, each story had the same things in common. I was part of a group or team. I felt free and powerful. It was awesome.
It’s a heady thing to belong and feel wanted. Combine that with your first taste of freedom and the power that goes with it, and there you go–the Best Summer Ever.
These are the things I think about when I write for kids. The child in me always wanted to stand in the Struzan-esque spotlight and shine. The kids I knew then and the kids I know now understand this, deep inside them. I’ll wager very few people grow up thinking I really want to be a sidekick. You want to be the hero. The Main Role. And when you get to a certain age and start seeing from new perspectives, you realize that every person is his or her own hero (even the bad guys). Everyone’s head is always biggest where he or she stands.
So today, I’ve been thinking about what I’ll call Shine. This has less to do with Shirley Temple’s “sparkle” or the “X” or “It Factor” you hear thrown around the performing world and more to do with putting your humanity on display–letting your living-ness (and vulnerability) come across in a very clear way. Audiences, with the possible exception of vampire and zombie fans, love a person who’s really alive.
Think about an actor like Robert Downey, Jr. Charisma? In spades. But it’s more than that. There’s something in the eyes. How does he make them so gosh darn shiny? Are there drops for that?
Kids hit a certain age and they notice this. When they draw living beings, they start adding that little speck of white in a pupil–the catchlight in the eye. Everyone knows this gives your sketch of the puppy–or Wolverine–that extra oomph. Sure, the catchlight says a lot of things–I’m round, I’m wet, there’s a light shining on me from thattaway. But mostly it says I’m alive. Kids figure this out without being told. They know indicating shine makes the picture real.
Kids want to feel important–that they belong and they are wanted. They want to feel the power of knowing that what they do really matters. And at a certain age, the sudden realization of freedom to chose their actions–to choose right or wrong, this way or that way, or which team to join–feels like the most powerful living they’ve ever done.
This is why I write middle grade novels–to capture that first E.T./Goonies everybody-grab-your-bikes moment that happens around age 10 to 12. Soundtrack’s playing, spotlight’s on. It’s going to be an adventure and we have to win. But first, turn toward the camera. Pause, reflect.