I suggest the following changes for the next draft of your shoppable children’s storybook

Isn't that weird, Oliver? I could swear I just said "Go inside and get us some lemonade," but here's this bitch au pair still looking at us.

If you obsessively checked the New York Times twenty times the morning, as I do right after calisthenics, you probably noticed the advertisement for this shoppable children’s storybook by Ralph Lauren, narrated by Harry Connick Jr.* “The RL Gang,” as it is titled, cleverly serves three functions: fun narrative for kids, handy shopping guide for parents, and terrifying portent of a coming consumer hellscape for the rest of us. As near as I can tell, this is RL’s pioneer effort in the field of shoppable children’s stories. I remember my first SCS, an episodic narrative about a socially awkward but resourceful duck who goes shopping for a dirt bike while struggling with memories of the duck who inexplicably left him two years earlier. It was not successful, and very few dirt bikes were sold. Given the difficulty that the form can present to new writers, I’d like to offer some helpful suggestions for the next draft of “The RL Gang.”

Let’s start by talking about narrative structure. This shoppable children’s story lacks a through-line, a problem that I think is reflected in the title. “The RL Gang” doesn’t have a verb in it, suggesting that we’re not going to be told a story so much as introduced to a group of characters. I understand that you’re not looking to spin a yarn with this. There are some themes you want to explore—a child’s capacity for wonderment, the inherence of the sublime in the mundane, $300 riding boots for eight year-olds. We’re not talking Gift of the Magi, here, and I don’t need this to be a classically-structured story. Still, I need it to be story.

For the first two minutes, not much is happening. I learn each of the children’s names, and that Mae has for some reason brought a cat to school—implying that her parents are sufficiently uninvolved in her upbringing that they did not talk to her before she left for her first day of kindergarten, or possibly that no one has yet discovered their deaths. That’s interesting, but I can’t commit to it because I am being denied critical information.

Where are they? Their clothes and evenly-distributed ethnicities suggest that these are wealthy, urban children, but they also seem to be attending a one-room schoolhouse. The sense of confusion I feel at the setting is compounded by having to keep track of eight main characters. That’s too many for me to invest in as a reader.

Frankly, it seems to be challenging the author, as well. Willow, Mae and Hudson are all well-drawn, but Jasper and Oliver—with their baseball glove and quiet reading, respectively—seem like vague archetypes. Katherine has no character at all, and is described only as “[holding] her lunch box like a purse; it had a galloping horse on it.” I know more about the lunchbox than the person at this point, and that’s never a good sign.

Also: all the characters in this shoppable children’s story have shoppable-children’s-story names. Willow, Jasper, Oliver, Hudson, River—you even have a Zoe. People named Zoe only exist in short stories. A good solution is to use nicknames, which will avoid seeming precious while still helping the reader keep track. I suggest changing “Jasper” to “Jas,” “Oliver” to “Johnny Two Times” and “Willow” to “Roach.”

I feel like the story really begins once Professor Lavender arrives. Who is this man, and what is the source of his magical powers? He is described only as “well-dressed.” That and his name make me think that you’re trying to introduce a gay subtext; Professor Lavender shows the children an alternate world whose sensual richness contrasts sharply with the grim materialism of the schoolhouse. If this is intentional, I think you should explore it more fully. If it’s not what you’re going for, make Professor Lavender a chick.

The whole tree subplot isn’t really working for me. As a parable the children experience in Prof. Lavender’s magic book (?) inside the school, it’s a story-within-a-story-within-the-story, and that’s one too many framing devices. I’m okay with the magical realism elements, but the image of the apple introduces a Christian metaphor that is confusing in the context of Lavender’s overt homosexuality. It’s an unclear image system, and I’d rather we preserve the narrative unity of the schoolhouse. If you want to incorporate an element of fantasy, I’d suggest using Mae’s cat.

Overall, I like what you’ve done with this shoppable children’s story, but I think you need to focus on increasing narrative unity. Try writing a draft with only three children and no Professor Lavender, or a coming-of-age story with Lavender and Willow/Roach, and see how it reads. With a couple of redrafts and a good edit, I think this puppy will be ready to sit up and bark.

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  1. I’m feeling somewhat abused by Combat!, for having been convinced to sit through most of that story just so I could be in on your jokes.

    But I’m glad you’ve found a use for your three years of grad school. I’m curious that you elected not to comment on the clumsy, “gratingly grating” prose, and less surprised that your sartorial criticism is non-existent. Let me just say this. NEVER buy bullshit like that for children. Kids couldn’t give a shit about bow-ties, buckles and scarves, their fingers are too flimsy to do anything but get gunk on them, and parents sure don’t want to go through the hell of getting kids to sit still long enough to put something like that on.

  2. Mose — as a parent of 3 kids, I absolutely agree. Kids need stuff that is simple and durable (and hopefully, cheap). Toys are often the same way. The most fun toys from childhood? Sticks. Legos. Stuff that encourages creativity.

    I’ll submit this observation, though. If you see a kid wearing Ralph Lauren, just look for the preppy d-bag couple with fake tans wearing Ralph Lauren, and you’ve just found their parents. Different values, with predictable results.

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