Back in 1991, a fantasy writer/reviewer named Dorothy J. Heydt remarked of a book she'd been reading, "I don't care what happens to these people" and stopped reading.
Two years later, she used the phrase again, only this time she dubbed it "The Eight Deadly Words." She used some rather creative emphasis, too: "I don't care what happens to these people."
The term "The Eight Deadly Words" has since been used by other bloggers and reviewers, but I note it here because children's books, as they become increasingly commercial, sometimes suffer from this problem: without strong, dimensional, appealing characters, all of the fast-paced plotting in the world can't save them. I just finished reading a book a few days ago that suffered from this difficulty; the plotting was oh-so-clever, but the characters remained at a distance, two-dimensional silhouettes like those classic cut-out illustrations of fairy tale figures by Arthur Rackham.
This past month I've been teaching an online writing class called "How to Make Your Children's Book More Marketable." The searingly obvious solution? Write better books! But plot can only take you so far. As I read Watt Key's Alabama Moon last fall, I cared desperately about Moon. I cared so much about Neil Gaiman's Bod that once I'd read a single story about him last spring, "The Witch's Headstone" in M Is for Magic, I counted the minutes till I could find out what happened to him in The Graveyard Book. And most recently, I carried Miranda in my heart for pages in Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me.
As I think back to favorite books of five, fifteen, even thirty years ago, their characters still feel real, like people I've actually met: Megan Whalen Turner's Gen, Margaret Mahy's Laura Chant, and the three sisters in Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, for example.
The so-called "quiet book" may be dying by inches, and Plot may be king or at least prince these days. But characters matter and will always matter.
Note: I googled Dorothy Heydt in the first place because I was culling my library of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress short story collections. I've found that in a given short story collection (and not just Bradley's), I usually only like 2-4 stories. In the case of Bradley's books, I always liked Heydt's tales about a wisewoman named Cynthia fleeing the wrath of the gods in an ancient Greek setting. Alas, Heydt still hasn't made the stories into a book.