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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

Kids vs World

Updated: Mar 19, 2020

Stranger Things blog post opener - Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada. © 21 Laps Entertainment Monkey Massacre

Does it deserve to be a storytelling genre in its own right? Worth a dedicated section in the book store? I’ve seen a sign marked ‘Paranormal Romance’ (not making that up) over the shelf in a local chain, so why not Kids vs World? Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada is a story about children, but when people ask me if it’s a children’s book, I baulk. In Amazon’s dashboard, the closest available categories were: Young Adult, Fantasy and Adventure. It was not the first time it struck me there ought to be a dedicated Kids vs World category for fiction.

Forever Young

How many adults could you name who watched Stranger Things and didn’t love it? I’ve heard people with zero interest in the horror/fantasy genre rave about how they binge-watched all three series back-to-back. So what is it about Stranger Things – a story about a bunch of kids banding together to fight an inter-dimensional evil – that makes fans of people decades older than the main characters? One might cite the nostalgic eighties backdrop, twisting plot, sharp writing/editing, the humour. Perhaps it’s the bounty of lovable, quirky, dysfunctional, downright damaged characters. A hundred other points might be made. I would make only one: it is about the spiritual heart.

There are so many scenes that resonate on a personal level – the classic arcade scene, role-playing games in the parent’s basement, riding from friend to friend on crappy old BMX's – it’s easy to become distracted by them. But it's the all-connecting spirit of the series that weaves the magic. Stranger Things feels like it oozed directly out of Stephen King’s mid-eighties imagination. In fact, it feels like a tribute to the great Master himself. No other author did so much to lay a foundation for the Kids vs World genre.

Stephen King's It. Part I.
The Losers Club closes in on Pennywise.

Digging It

I was 14, from memory, and about to take my first US holiday with family. Anticipating the boredom of a long flight, I snapped up a copy of Stephen King’s It, which was getting a lot of buzz at the time. We flew first to Hawaii and hung out around Waikiki Bay before flying to the West-Coast mainland. You know the tourist drill: LA, Disneyland, a coach trip north up the Big Sur coastline to San Francisco. I wasn’t entirely present. My head was in Derry, Maine with seven terrified children.

They were not strangers. To me they were more like best friends. This is King’s greatest gift – not storytelling, but character. He makes you love them. He makes you hate them. He does it better than anyone. He didn’t invent Kids vs World, but he damned-near perfected it.

Naturally, the nostalgic in me had me salivating over the 2017 movie adaptation starring Billie Skaarsgard as the child-devouring clown/demon Pennywise. The most significant break from King’s novel is how it deals with the time jump. In the original, we follow a story in two timeframes: In the 50s, a group of seven kids form The Losers Club, banding together to fight Pennywise, regrouping as adults in the 80s to step up for round II. King intertwined the time periods, jumping back and forth from chapter to chapter as the story evolves.

For pragmatic/marketing reasons, the movie chooses a contemporary time period. The 30-year jump remains, split into two films to complete the story. It lost a lot of content from the books, along with a lot of great scares, but it also makes sense from a film point of view. Here’s the catch: I just know I’m not going to enjoy the second film as much as the first. How could I? The kids are all grown up.

Act I

The Kid’s vs World template has a familiar Act 1.

  • An innocent will be taken and/or killed, driving the kids to band together and save/avenge their unfortunate comrade (It, Stranger Things, Super 8)

  • Strangers appear who are not what they seem; the adults just won’t listen. The kids join forces to investigate before things go deeply south (Lost Boys, ET, every Buffy episode ever made)

The Lost Boys (1985).
Between two Coreys is the safest place to be when The Lost Boys crash your party.

People are Strange

The Lost Boys (1985) is one of my stand-out Kids vs World faves, an intergenerational, cross-genre, vampire Vs mortal, 80s blockbuster classic. Sam (Corey Haim) has just moved to the coastal California town of Santa Carla, his single mother having dragged him and older brother Michael (Jason Patric) across country to shack up with the eccentric Grandpa. From the graffiti on the back of the ‘Welcome to Santa Carla’ road sign, to the missing-kid pictures on the milk cartons, everywhere you look you get the impression something ain’t quite right about this pumpin’ party town.

Pioneering the theory that two Coreys are better than one, Cory I doesn’t figure it out on his lonesome. While browsing the comic shop on the Pier, he falls under the radar of the Frog brothers, Edgar (Corey II) and Alan who help prep our reluctant protagonist for the challenges to come. The rock’n’roll vampires are led by the too-cool-for-school Kiefer Sutherland (or are they?), who seems to have Sam’s older brother Michael on his recruitment list. The Kids vs World rollercoaster builds momentum as the teenage trio stick it to the vamp clan while simultaneously trying to stay out of the path of all the meddling grown-ups.

Snow and Fire

The formula is not reserved for horror movies. Fantasy templates detour in many weird and wonderful ways, but every twist and turn is mapped to corral the same spirit. In CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the children are all but abandoned by the adults. An innocent game of hide-n-seek leads Lucy through the wardrobe portal into the magical winter kingdom of Narnia. Their Kids vs World adventure detours from WWII-era Britain to another world entirely.

In Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada, the Kids vs World dynamic is hinted at as early as the Cicada Hunt Commencement ceremony. Our heroes are drawn reluctantly into a showdown with the infamous school bully Slade. The moment of tension is diffused by the arrival of the hated Cadets.

“Roaches are coming,” said the broad-shouldered Sylt, barely a whisper. Ninness directed the words toward Slade, completely ignoring the two fifth-graders quivering before him.

Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada, Chapter 4

Not quite a ‘crossing the threshold’ moment, but one that inches the door open an inch or two. The school boys set aside their tribal differences in the presence of a mutual enemy. Slade did not immediately back down, nor offer alliance to the fifth-graders he was tormenting. But that he was turned from course was the first sign that it might not be entirely possible that they may end up shoulder to shoulder at some distant horizon point (like a climactic battle, for example).

On a related note, was I the only one not profoundly disappointed that Malfoy didn’t throw in with Harry during the climactic Battle of Hogwarts? In the previous instalment, he refused to betray Harry to fellow Death Eaters. In the climactic scene of The Half-Blood Prince, Draco choked on a promise to kill Dumbledore. Why did Rowling pave this path of redemption, only to drop him into the river at the final bridge? One might argue it would fail the credibility sniff test. But not this one.

Horror vs Fantasy?

Or none of the above, if that’s not really you’re thing. Kids vs Adults can make magic with no such embellishments. The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and even the Scooby gang solved adult mysteries in a (mostly) supernatural-free universe. Spielberg used a pirate treasure map hidden in a dusty attic to launch the Goonies vs World (though technically, they were just on a treasure hunt). In my humble opinion, The Goonies has not aged well (apologies to Corey II). Unlike other cross-generational Kids vs World classics, The Goonies piles the ham-and-cheese slapstick on so thick it can only be described as a dedicated children’s film, its enduring adult appeal derived from the nostalgia of those who grew up watching it in the 80s.

In ET: The Extra Terrestrial Spielberg crafted a more mature story, while retaining the same spirit that made The Goonies such a folkloric fave. When young Elliot discovers a little lost alien in his backyard, he defaults to the prime directive of all Kids Vs World movies: DON’T TELL THE PARENTS!

Everyone knows the story, but how would you categorise it? I can’t even remember which row it used to sit in at the local Video store. Was it Children? Science Fiction? Fantasy? It doesn’t matter. The movie broke box-office records because it smashed through all these category and generational barriers. How so? By positioning Kids vs World as the spiritual heart of his film, Spielberg distilled every essence of youth we adults find so appealing: adventure, rebelliousness, defiance, mischief, a little awkwardness. Who could not cheer the half-pint outlaws through the frantic BMX chase through the suburb. In a Kids-vs-World universe, the FBI, Sherriff’s office and a bunch of evil science guys are no match for a bunch of teenagers on BMX bikes.

The Hero’s Journey

Or should that be, Heroes? A Kids vs World journey is rarely travelled solo. The protagonist needs allies, and each fleshed out with complex backstories of their own. They all have a Hero’s Journey to make. In It, Pennywise takes the form of the children’s greatest fears: the mummy, the wolfman, a leper, the creeping eye! Our heroes need to grow evolve, taking on challenges and overcoming obstacles that would leave their Chapter 1-selves incapacitated by bed-wetting terror.

Some would call To Kill a Mockingbird a book about social justice. I would call it one of the 20th Century’s pioneering Kids vs World classics. For those not familiar with it, the tale is built around the musings of Scout Finch, a feisty eleven-year-old tomboy. Not much to do in Maycombe, Alabama during the summer break but kick around with her older brother and delinquent out-of-town drop-in Dill. Pooling their imaginations, they concoct an entire mythos around the dreaded Radley house, and the elusive hermit cloistered within. Coaxing the terrifying Boo Radley out from his burrow becomes an overriding obsession for the hapless trio, as they lurch from one failed attempt to the next. Following the classic Hero’s Journey, Scout eventually transcends her fear of Boo, and learns that he is not the threat they have imagined – quite the opposite.

The Radley story line is not the sole part of the book. But perhaps it is the parallel storyline of Tom Robinson’s trial that paves the way for the penultimate Kids vs World moment. A lynch mob has come for (black) Tom Robinson, who is in the county lock-up awaiting trial for raping a local (white) girl. The only thing standing between Tom and the noose is Scout’s old man – mild-mannered lawyer Atticus Finch, who happens to be Tom’s defence lawyer. Things are looking grim until Scout and the gang rock up. Without realising her own power, Scout singled out the father of a school chum and struck up a small-talk conversation about his son. Like Hopskotch and Slade at the Commencement Ceremony, opposing forces find common ground. The rage is dispersed, a shared humanity cuts through. Atticus could never have pulled it off alone.

Scout’s power was unique to her youth, her innocence, and her ignorance of the civilisational changes moving around her. Like the great storytellers who would follow, Harper Lee had distilled and bottled the purest essence of Kids vs World. Her story brings me back to the question asked of every author: what’s it like? I get the impression they want me to say Harry Potter. My instinctive reply is To Kill a Mockingbird. One might call that a very long bow, indeed. But what other reason would I have for naming Hopskotch’s father Maycombe.

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