In the age of technology, some writers feel children’s literature has been overlooked in favor of digital entertainment. Tracey Hecht, author of the forthcoming book, The Nocturnals (Booklist reviewer Kathleen McBroom called it “humorous and well developed”) discusses the approach she and a team of writers took to write a middle-grade novel that could entrance even the most tech-savy kids.
For thousands and thousands of years, humans shared stories via oral tradition: hearing, learning, and then repeating them verbally. Even when those stories began to be recorded on papyrus, parchment, and vellum, reading out loud was an essential and even preferred means of broadcast.
Today, we get most of our entertainment by watching stories. We see short- and long-form shows on TVs, computers, phones, and movie screens. We binge-watch and then share our entertainment passions by tipping each another off to whatever’s playing on AMC or Netflix. Technology may have changed our entertainment patterns, but the lure of books still remains.
About three years ago I thought to myself, Why can’t books come back as a centerpiece of shared entertainment? In particular, why can’t kids enjoy books with their friends the way they do apps or YouTube videos? Why must they always gather around a screen? Can’t we squeeze a book or two into the mix?
I decided to write a book that acted like a movie.
Many people have vivid memories of being read to as a child. My family read on road trips, with my sisters and I dangling our arms over the station wagon front seat, trying to get closer to my mom’s voice. I also remember the hours hidden in basements, squealing as my friends and I whispered aloud from Judy Blume’s, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. And to this day I can hear my elementary-school librarian, Ms. Baker, reading out loud to us. We all know books can achieve this collective enjoyment, but today there is the additional challenge of competing with the digital world.
I decided to write a book that acted like a movie. I thought it should be funny and dialogue-heavy, have great characters, and a distinctive tone. I wanted it to be enjoyable to read silently but even better when read out loud. The idea was to create fiction in the vernacular of film but with strong literary substance.
The result is The Nocturnals, a middle-grade chapter series about a nocturnal brigade of animals and their adventures in the night. Right now the books are in pre-launch in select communities, and the responses so far have been great. The kids we’ve given The Nocturnals to immediately started to mimic the wacky phrasing and staccatos of the characters and text. When their memories failed them, they’d reach for the book to extend their mimic into longer phrases and passages. It’s like a built-in read-aloud program! It’s funny and fun, and from the way the book is being passed around the communities to which we’ve released it, it looks like—dare I say—it’s going viral!
Part of the way my writing team and I created this new vernacular was by reading the book out loud as we created the material. Fabled Films Press has a team of writers who create material in much the same way as television show runners. We have a single creative director who writes the first book and creates the style guide, which is referred to as “the bible.” For the Nocturnals, I was that person. I wrote the first book and established the tone, style, and voice of the series. I now oversee the writing team on this project.
Each member of the team (at present three writers in addition to me) is writing a book for the series. Writers shepherd their own material and are responsible for research, outlines, story arcs, and new characters for their books. But as each of us write our own material, we workshop our ideas and our writing out loud. Twice a week, a professional reader comes in and reads the material aloud. As a team we provide feedback on pacing, story development, character, and style-guide specifics for each book. We even suggest line edits where we think the material can be improved. The writer then goes back and incorporates these edits as they see fit. In this way we stay rooted in strong literary process and ensure the writing’s ability to succeed as communal entertainment as we go along.
Perhaps because books are not as quickly consumed,
they are not as quickly forgotten.
When the manuscripts are finished, we hand them off to our editor, who provides feedback to be incorporated into the second, third, and eventual finished manuscripts. The process allows us to enjoy the benefits of both writing alone and together, and has given us the opportunity to develop a great team. The best part is? It has also been fun.
I’ve always believed there’s nothing quite like the experience of sharing written text out loud. I think that is even more so today. We recognize that things enjoyed off screen have a deeper, more resonating impact. Perhaps because books are not as quickly consumed, they are not as quickly forgotten. That’s what makes them special. And that’s also why we think the book can find its way back to being a centerpiece of shared entertainment.
Imagine kids once again gathered around books. Now that would be a great show.
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Tracey Hecht is a writer and entrepreneur who has written, directed, and produced for film. When she isn’t writing she can be found hiking, reading, or spending time with her family. Tracey currently splits her time between New York City and Oquossoc, Maine, with her husband, four children, and three pets—none of which is a sugar glider.