Written by a Kid: Some Musings

By Casey Wilson

If you aren’t as involved in the geeky web series side of the internet as I am, you may have missed the debut of Written by a Kid over on internet maven and all-around geek queen Felicia Day’s YouTube channel Geek and Sundry. The premise is simple, according to the playlist tagline: “Original Stories By Kids Directed By Adults!” And, indeed, that is how it goes down. A child tells a story, with some prodding by an enthusiastic adult audience, and various animators and actors bring it to life on screen. The premiere episode starred none other than Joss Whedon:

The videos are cute, and they take on a wide variety of styles as different creative teams come on board. What I find interesting about the series, though, is that it still wraps itself up in that age-old children’s literature question of exactly what role the child has to play in its development. Because I can’t help but think, the more of these videos that I watch, that the stories aren’t entirely written by the kids themselves. (Leaving aside the fact that they aren’t written in the first place.)

As the kids tell their story, they are asked questions. Sometimes it’s for clarification, sometimes it’s to expand upon a particular point, and sometimes it’s to make the story fit a more accepted narrative shape. And throughout the video, the story is being mediated through adult representations, whether it’s actors or animation or some combination therein. So the stories the kids tell, from beginning to end, do not belong to them even as they are originating from them.

It’s a complex situation, and one where I in no way begrudge the creators of the series for their choices and presentation. The videos are cute, amusing, and creative — but they aren’t written (entirely, or even mostly) by the kids.

Casey is a PhD student.

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3 thoughts on “Written by a Kid: Some Musings

  1. Daniel Strange

    Interesting point, Casey, but I wonder if your definition of “written by” is perhaps too strict in regards to the nature of film/tv/video production in general as a collaborative medium. Leaving aside that yes, the scenario & dialogue for each episode is solicited orally and spontaneously rather than received as a document or a premeditated story – and therefore isn’t technically “written” – I disagree with your position that the kids don’t “entirely, or even mostly” write the stories simply because their visions are filtered through other perspectives on the way to becoming completed episodes. Even when, say, Tom Stoppard writes a script, it’s interpreted by others (production designers, composers, producers, actors, directors) as part of the process required to bring it to the screen; does their involvement mean he no longer has ownership of the writer’s credit? And wouldn’t that credit still rightfully be his even if he dictated the story & dialogue as others asked him questions for clarification? In short, I believe the credit is an appropriate one, considering the context. But then, I’m biased, because I work on the show.

    • Thanks for your comment, Daniel! I fully take your point, in that this kind of production is (almost) always going to be inherently collaborative. There’s no denying that, and I would agree that the writer of a script — whether it be Tom Stoppard or, say, my four-year-old niece — should receive credit for that work. I probably should have chosen my wording more carefully, because I absolutely think that the kids here are in a position that lets them create the (awesome) stories.
      But it’s also not that simple. I would argue that, ultimately, the series is about the adult viewer rather than the child writer. In the academic world of children’s literature, there’s a very influential theory put forth by Jacqueline Rose which says, in short, that children’s literature is an impossibility because almost everyone involved in the production and consumption of children’s literature is an adult — writers, editors, publishers, parents. According to this idea, children are an afterthought even in a medium that is supposedly being created for them, and the literature (and media) we produce for them tells us more about the adults than the children. Adults, after all, are forever removed from childhood. Anything we pretend to know about childhood we can no longer know for ourselves. (The theory is, of course, more complex than I make it seem here, but hey. Comment thread.)
      This was in the back of my mind as I wrote the entry, because I think that “Written By a Kid” falls prey to this a little bit. I just rewatched the making of for “Scary Smash”, and toward the end you make a comment that you thought the video you made and the story Brett told had two different tones — that Brett’s story was legitimately scary and terrifying in his head, but that depicting that wouldn’t be “appropriate” for the entire viewing audience. That’s the interesting little conundrum: this is written by a kid, but would too scary for kids to watch. Because “Written By a Kid” is always filtered through adult eyes, it’s always going to be about what the adult conceptions of childhood are rather than what the children actually say they are.
      Which is fine! (And completely not specific to this show.) But I do think it complicates the idea of this being “written” by a kid, if we take the idea of writing as something more broadly defined. The name may be accurate, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s incomplete.
      But: I love the series, I really do. It’s fantastically well done, and as my blatherings show, it provokes plenty of thoughts and ideas from an academic POV, which is always exciting. In fact, this convo may have given me an idea for my next conference paper…

  2. Daniel Strange

    I won’t disagree that the series is (somewhat) about the adult viewer, because from the beginning, we designed it to be accessible to all ages — partly because we think it’s a show anyone can enjoy, and partly because, from a business perspective, we want to appeal to the largest possible audience. Which brings us to the adjustments I made to “Scary Smash.” It wasn’t actually kids in the audience that I was worried about offending (my feeling is, “if a kid can write it, a kid can handle it”), it was their parents! In my experience, adults are more easily offended than children, and since adults control what their kids get to watch, it made sense to keep them in mind when modulating tone (especially in the first episode). If the show wasn’t funded by someone else, and I didn’t have responsibilities as a producer and director to appeal to a wider audience, “Scary Smash” may have been different. Or maybe not. I have to confess that I probably would have made it in that style anyway, just because that’s what I felt like doing.

    I’ll also agree that the show isn’t an accurate expression of childhood, but again, for me it’s never been about that. I always try to describe it as “a show about imagination” — specifically, how the collision of kid and adult imaginations creates something new, and, hopefully, something totally bonkers. That alchemy is to me the heart of the show, and it’s why we try to have different directors for each episode. Which is another reason that I think “Written By a Kid” is the appropriate title — it doesn’t claim to be wholly executed by, or even overseen by, kids (although that would be a great show, and I would certainly watch it). The story is the first step in the creative journey, as it would be if the show was “Written By Tom Stoppard” (another show I would watch). I suppose a more complete title would be “Written By a Kid, Directed By an Adult,” but that’s probably too wordy.

    Anyway, glad you’re a fan, and it’s nice to see that it’s inspired a blog post (and maybe a paper)! The more it’s discussed and the more the word gets out about it, the better, I think. I’m very proud of it.

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