Holidays and Kids' Stories

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Holidays and Kids' Stories

By Justin Stanchfield

© 2001, By Justin Stanchfield

Holidays and kids just seem to go together. 

In fact, there are so many stories centered on holidays, you sometimes wonder if there's enough room left for another. Of course, the answer to that is a resounding yes. Holiday stories are a staple of children's magazines, movies, and, to a lesser extent, books. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of holiday manuscripts cross editor's desks each year. The demand is high. But it's the writer's challenge to rise above the pack and create something new, or at least re-combine familiar elements into something fresh.

Sadly, too many children's stories follow predictable, formulaic plot-lines. Santa Clause is in trouble and needs rescue. A young child learns the value of sharing. A boy or girl from one culture discovers the meaning of another culture's holidays. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these ideas. In fact, they are the basis of some of the most famous stories ever written. That is also the greatest drawback to these familiar tomes. Not only have they been done, they have been done well. What then is the key to creating a truly memorable, and salable, holiday story? 


Think back on the stories or films you loved best as a child. Chances are they remain among your favorites today. This is more than a nostalgic longing for childhood. You remember them because they spoke to you, touched something deep inside, and brought you to a higher understanding of yourself. This is a tall order for something as seductively innocent as a holiday story. But it can be done. 

Who hasn't, at least once in their life, wished they hadn't been born? Who hasn't wondered about the consequences if their life was suddenly erased, taking with it the tangled network of events that make up a lifetime? This is the premise of Frank Capra's classic movie "It's A Wonderful Life." That it happens at Christmas time is almost incidental to the film. The movie skips back and forth over time, and in fact, different realities, and yet it's considered by many to be the quintessential Christmas movie. And therein lies the secret. The story moves on separate but conjoined levels: the bitter feud between Harry Bailey and Mr. Potter, the love story, the struggle of everyday men and women to lead normal lives during war and depression. Even hapless Clarence, the novice angel, and his quest to win his wings, blend together into something memorable. And while few short stories can carry off this level of involvement, a good holiday story should operate on a least two levels. 

Another example is Dr. Seuess's "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." The message of the book, and the animated feature based on it, is plain. Christmas is about love and giving, not about gifts or holiday fanfare. And yet it's the front story, the nasty, smirking Grinch's foul attempt to stop Christmas, that keeps young readers on the edge of their seats. Will he steal everything in Whoville? Can he really dump the entire sled over the edge of a cliff? It is, in many ways, a suspense story with one of the most memorable villains in the history of kids' literature. Again, it is the plot and the characters that draw us in, not the fact that it's about Christmas. 

Try to use this in your own writing. No matter what, remember that in a holiday story the story comes first. Don't settle for trappings. Dig deep. Go ahead and jerk a few tears if you have to. Make your Christmas story as full and rich as any other story you would write. And, of course, the same holds true for any other holiday you write about. 

Thanksgiving. Hanukkah. The Fourth of July. The holiday is nothing more than the backdrop. But what if you want to write a fictional account of a holiday's origin? Perhaps a first-hand glimpse of Memorial Day from the viewpoint of a young French girl who lived through World War One, or a Hebrew boy sweating through the terrors of the first Passover? Again, the key element is the emotional impact that the events have on your characters, and through them, your readers. But don't skimp on the research. Make sure to have your history right. Not only the main events, but the little things as well. Learn all the small details, including food or dress, perhaps long vanished rituals, and anything else that gives your story a sense of immediacy, a feeling that you were there. 

Tales of non-traditional Western holidays, those outside of the standard Judeo-Christain calendar, or national holidays from countries outside of the United States, are very much in demand. But, as with a historical setting, do your homework first. If you live in a culture that celebrates different holidays, by all means explore putting them into your fiction. If you don't, however, make certain you understand the true meanings of the holiday, not simply the date and what is placed on the table. And, as always, put the story first, the holiday second. Dig deep.

One last thing to remember about writing holiday stories for kids: while nearly every major kid's magazine asks for holiday material, they generally ask for them six to nine months prior to the holiday. Magazines run on long lead times, and normally a Christmas story that crosses the transom in November won't even be given a second glance. So this season when all those Christmas lights and mistletoe spark the holiday muse this December, by all means, write the story. Then, very carefully, tuck it away until the Fourth of July before you seal it in that envelope!