Writing For Children: ·One Author's Experience
I write for children, but I also write for myself. This is true not just in terms of rhythm, pacing, and sentence structure, but also in terms of-emotional impact. A story resonates, not just because of delightful images, interesting characters, or unusual twists of plot, but because the emotional content speaks to the core of who I am. A story resonates when I can say, "Yes-this is true."
I think stories should both reflect and model-reflect the child well enough so that child can identify with the character; while, at the same time, they model behavior or values that may be challenging or different from how the child is. Not that we should say, "Here-this is the way you should be living," but rather, "Look-here's a different way. This might be the one you're looking for. This might be true for you." That is the story that resonates.
When my oldest sons were young, I would visit the public library and bring home bags-full of picture books to read to them. After we'd read a few hundred, I decided I wanted to try to write some. I didn't get started right away, though; instead, I gave birth to two more sons. At last, I began to write for publication.
I knew that getting a picture book published would be difficult, so I wrote articles, poems, and stories for magazines as well, to get my work into print and to help keep me encouraged while I waited for my "big break." It took five years of submissions and rejections before I sold my first manuscript to Bradbury Press. I have signed contracts for six more books since then, and I have learned a truth .that is sometimes difficult to accept: it is not enough to write a good story; what a writer has to do is write a publishable story. While both writers and editors want to provide the very best literature to our young people, they have quite different agendas. Writers write the stories that their hearts and heads dictate; editors need to think about the bottom line.
· Magic Carpet, my first manuscript accepted for publication (Brisson, 1991) is about Elizabeth and her Aunt Agatha and the story they make up together of how the Oriental carpet, on which they are sitting and eating their lunch, came from China and ended up at Aunt Agatha's house. I had written the story in 1985, Bradbury Press was the fourth house to see it and, of course, I was thrilled when they offered me a contract.
I followed this story with several others, one of which also had Elizabeth and Aunt Agatha in it, but none of them was accepted for publication. I couldn't figure it out, so one day I asked Virginia, my editor, what it was about Magic Carpet that they liked so much, and which the other stories didn't seem to have.
"Well," said Virginia, "What did you like about it, Pat?"
I responded immediately.
"I liked the warmth and intimacy of the relationship between the little girl and her aunt," I told her. "And
I liked the way they used their imaginations to make up a story together."
"Oh," said Virginia.
"But what did you like, Virginia?" I asked again.
Without hesitation she answered, "We liked the geography."
The geography ---of course! I should have known.
On January 11, 1983, a University of Miami professor gave his class a geography quiz. They failed miserably. Within a week, the story was being treated as big news in the media, and Americans were being described as among the least geographically literate people in the industrialized world (Helgren). Since then, geographical literacy had come into focus as a major concern among educators and, consesequently, among publishers.
Geographical literacy involves more than being able to locate a certain place on a map. The five main geographical themes, as set forth in Guidelines for Geographical Education, published by the Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the national Council for Geographic Education and Association of American Geographers (Kemball), are:
Location-absolute and relative position on the earth's surface;
Place-physical and human characteristics;
Relationships within places-humans depending on and adapting the environment;
Movement-humans interacting on the earth; and
Regions-how they form and change.
I do not pretend to have known all that when I decided to do a geography story. But, unwittingly, I managed to touch on a number of those themes in my story.
However, for me, the geography in Magic Carpet had been incidental; the story was much more important. How difficult would it be then, I thought, to write another story with incidental geography? I would have a girl on vacation with her parents and pesky younger brother, writing letters to her best friend back at home. The trip would begin in New Jersey, go south to Florida, and then loop home by way of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Your Best Friend, Kate is the result of that decision (Brisson 1989).
Since I had never had the opportunity to do much traveling, I wrote a very "generic" book-it was hot in Savannah, so they got ice cream cones and Brian dripped his all over the letter Kate was writing to Lucy; they visited a craft shop in Lexington and Kate tried on a shawl that Brian said would look better flipped over and hiding her face; their mother complained that they had fought in eleven different states and Kate wondered if that was some kind of record. The geography was still incidental, as far as I was concerned; it was still the story that was important.
Earlier I mentioned that when I write for children, I am writing for myself as well. If the rhythm of the language seems off to me, if the humor falls flat or seems forced, if the ending doesn't satisfy me, then I don't expect it to work for children either. I am also aware of the fact that picture books are read by adults to children, and I want my books to be enjoyable to all ages. Probably because of this, I have been told that there is adult humor in my books. For instance - toward the end of Your Best Friend, Kate, after weeks of traveling with two squabbling kids, Kate reports the following about her parents to Lucy:
"My father told Aunt Mag that more people should take vacations like this to see the country and bring their families closer together and that maybe next year we'd take a trip out West. My mother said he was either very brave or very foolish." (n. pag.)
This strikes me as the kind of comment that a child would remember and repeat without fully understanding it. If the child reading or listening to the story "gets it," fine. If not, that's fine, too. I'm certainly not going to aim everything over a young reader's head, but I do think it's OK to have them reach for a word, idea, or image every once in awhile. I try to always respect the child's intelligence and to keep in mind that my readers represent a very wide range of abilities and intellects. I want there to be something for everyone.
While story is the most important thing to me, as a writer I need to please my editor as well. And what my editor wanted was a lot more geography. Although she bought my manuscript in its "generic" form, several months later she informed me it was time for revisions, and what she wanted was specific, "name-brand" geography. She wrote away to all the cities Kate visited and got brochures, pamphlets, maps and tourist guides for all of them. Then she sent it all to me and told me she wanted Kate to go to real places, that a real child could visit. And, she added, make sure there was a lot of variety, so the illustrator would have something to work with.
I was distraught. She doesn't want a story, I wailed, she wants a travelogue. This is going to be completely different from what I wrote, and from what I intended. Finally my husband reassured me, saying that even though it would be a different story, it would still be my story. I got to work.
The research was actually a lot of fun. Travel brochures make every place sound great, so at times it was difficult to decide where they should visit. But I decided I wanted them to go to a variety of places-some of historical significance, some commercial tourist places, some natural wonders. Always they were places that I would want to visit myself.
The Kate that was finally published was the result of several revisions. And though I had been afraid that the story would be sacrificed to the information, in the end I was satisfied that it was still a good story despite all the factual matter.
I did not expect there to be more than one Kate book. But a year or so after the first book came out, my editor asked if I would like to do another. Knowing now that Kate would be expected to go to real places, I suggested the next book be set in New England, since I had at least been there. My editor had other ideas. She wanted Kate to visit Texas.
I knew next to nothing about Texas. It was so far away I had never even considered the possibility of visiting there. Just Texas, I asked? Well, you're the writer, she said, do whatever you want. I didn't remind her that I wanted to do New England. I threw in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona as well and Kate Heads West was born (1990). When it was almost published, Virginia said she promised the book reps in California that California would be in the next book. The next book, Kate on the Coast had Kate and her family moving to Seattle and visiting the Pacific states as well as Vancouver, British Columbia (1992).
I am very happy with the way the Kate books turned out. As I visit schools, and see the terrific projects that teachers have done with their classes, to incorporate the books into the curriculum, I realize that having "name-brand" geography very much increases their value in the classroom.
One class of fourth graders in Wisconsin wrote their own book with Your Best Friend, Kate as a model. They called it Dear Mom and Dad and it was about a brother and sister, Brad and Michelle, who go on a vacation with their grandparents and write to their parents who are at home taking care of baby twins. The students had to research a state, and coordinate the date and place and events with the other letters in the book, as well as do their own illustrations.
A class in Pennsylvania visited places of interest in their county and made postcards which depicted and described them. Both of these projects combine social studies, language arts, and art, which is common for most of the projects that I see.
However, I also visited a school in New Jersey where the music teacher had prepared a musical welcome for me. The students lined the hall singing "God Bless, America," "Deep in the Heart of Texas" (both of which are mentioned in the books), "California, Here I Come" and "This Land is Your Land." It was wonderful!
For a second-grade class, Kate Heads West was the inspiration for a Wild West Day. Everyone dressed in western-style clothing and they ate their lunch in the "mess hall" that day. The letters they wrote to me were all decorated with cowboy boots, cactus plants, ten-gallon hats, lassoes, spurs, campfires, and horses. What a great way to study regional differences.
So maybe my editor was right after all. However, for me, the geography still remains only an important prop to hang the more important story on.
Writing a good story is not enough to get it published. Selecting and editing books relies in large part on the personal preferences and judgments of the editor. An editor will often spend a great deal of time with a manuscript seeing it through to publication, and for that reason, should really like it if she chooses to publish it. I've had an editor tell me that a manuscript is publishable, but she was just not interested in doing it.
Editors also need to keep in mind, not only their own lists, but the entire body of children's books, to avoid publishing books that are similar to something that they or someone else have already published. I wrote a story called Always at Thanksgiving, which has been compared by many editors to Cynthia Rylant's The Relatives Came. While it does have the same premise of relatives coming to visit, I think it's a very different story, and certainly a common enough experience to warrant more than one book on the subject. Most editors don't agree. One's comment was "it's not that one is better than the other, it's just that the other is already out there."
Comments on this manuscript also serve to highlight the sometimes completely opposite perceptions of different editors. One editor wrote "we had the feeling that it's something of an adult reminiscence and, because it's a bit distant and hard to relate to, might not appeal to children." Another wrote "her description of moments and the events that comprise this visit through a child's eyes is vivid and realistic." It almost sounds as if they were talking about different manuscripts.
Editor's and author's perceptions about what works and doesn't work in a story can sometimes mean the difference between selling a manuscript or not. I recently sold a story that had been rejected by several houses, to Boyd's Mills Press. Its title is The Summer When My Father Was Ten and it is a story in a framework. It begins with a young boy telling how every year he and his father plant a garden: "tomatoes, peppers, onions, marigolds and zinnias grow in our neat, straight rows ... and every year I hear the story of the summer when my father was ten."
When his father was ten, he lived in an apartment in the city with his mother. In the apartment above them lived Mr. Bellavista, an old Italian man who planted a garden in the vacant lot next door each spring. That summer when the boy's father was playing baseball in the lot with his friends, a ball was hit into the garden. When he went to get it, he realized it was just about the same size as the tomatoes that were growing there. Imagining what his friend's face would look like if he threw the tomato instead of the ball, he pitched it, his friend hit it and chaos ensued. Tomatoes and peppers got smashed; onions, zinnias, and marigolds were uprooted and hurled through the air. And it was only when Mr. Bellavista appeared that the boy realized the extent of the damage they had done. He was filled with remorse but couldn't find the words to apologize.
The following spring he offered to help Mr. Bellavista plant his garden. They cared for it together all summer long. And every year after that, they worked together until the summer when the boy was sixteen and Mr. Bellavista went into a nursing home. Then the boy planted the garden himself and carried bouquets of zinnias on the bus to visit his old friend. When the tomatoes, onions, and peppers were harvested, he made spaghetti sauce and told his friend they would have it together when he came home. But Mr. Bellavista never did come home. And now, "every year my father and I plant a garden ... and every year I hear the story of the summer when my father was ten."
One editor felt this was not a picture book and suggested I rewrite it as a novel. I tried, but it turned into a different story. Many editors wanted me to get rid of the framework. They felt the story would have more impact, more immediacy without it.
But the frame was very important to me. For me, the story is not just about how a kid can mess up terribly and still be forgiven, although this.is a big part of it. What I see as even more important is the fact that the father was so marked by this experience, that he raised it to the level of Story, imbued it with the special power that repeated tellings impart, and gave it its own springtime ritual. It is the experience raised to a higher degree, greater than the actual incident; it has been raised to the level of Truth.
I once heard a storyteller say, "I don't know if this story really happened, but I know that it's true." That's what I want my stories to be-true. A true story will resonate with the reader, revealing emotions, experiences, and insights that the reader can either identify with because of similar experiences, or empathize with by allowing the self to merge with the protagonist. It is this kind of truth that helps children experience new ways of knowing about themselves, their world, and others in that world.
In Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, Donald A. Norman discusses the importance that stories have on executive decision makers. After all the statistics and facts are presented, he tells us, someone generally comes up with a pertinent anecdote or personal experience that captures the essence of which direction the group should take. The facts are not enough-the stories are what bring the group to a decision.
"There is something important and compelling about stories," he writes, "that bears considering in greater detail. Stories are marvelous means of summarizing experiences, of capturing an event and the surrounding context that seems essential. Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion." (129)
Katherine Paterson wrote, "The wonderful thing about books is that they allow us to enter imaginatively into someone else's life. And when we do that, we learn to sympathize with other people. But the real surprise is that we also learn truths about ourselves, about our own lives, that somehow we hadn't been able to see before."
In picture books, the author doesn't often deal with the weightier subject matter generally associated with novels for older children. There are few or no stories of alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, AIDS, sexual abuse, mental instability, or betrayed trust-staples of the YA novels. But even the youngest readers can be presented with philosophical and moral choices. Even·the youngest readers can be challenged to consider unselfishness and generosity as a preferred alternative to self-centered gratification.
Without intending to, I wrote a very challenging book for preschoolers and young elementary students. Benny's Pennies (1993) is about a boy who has five new pennies. He asks his family what he should buy. His mother tells him to buy something beautiful, his brother tells him to buy something good to eat, his sister tells him to buy something nice to wear, his dog says "woof, woof," and his cat says "meow."
Benny takes all their good advice and sets out. He ends up buying a sweet-smelling rose for his mother: a soft, warm cookie for his brother; a fine paper hat for his sister; a big, meaty bone for his dog; and a floppy, wet fish for his cat. He takes his purchases home and gives them to his family.
"Thank you, Benny," they all said together.
"You're welcome," said Benny McBride.
I was raised in a climate where virtue was considered its own reward. In Catholic school I was taught to be good and I learned my lessons well. I was generous, helpful, and kind, because that's what I was supposed to be. I thought it was that way for everyone. So I was surprised when teachers told me that their students were upset because Benny didn't get anything for himself. But most teachers also seemed grateful for the opportunity to discuss this issue with their students. Despite the accusations in the media that morals are not being taught in our schools, I think teachers, especially teachers of our youngest students, make a real effort to help their students consider the other person's feelings, to share and to be kind.
Benny's Pennies challenges young readers to consider that generosity and selflessness are worthy choices in life. And, in discussion, one kindergarten class decided that Benny did get something after all-"He got a lot of love." I like to point out that he also got that good, warm feeling that comes from doing nice things for other people and that's something money can't buy.
One of the hallmarks of children's literature is the sense of hopefulness with which the readers are left. No matter how bleak the situation, no matter how dire the circumstances, the reader can always take comfort in the fact that things can and will improve. It might take a lot of effort and the protagonist may not end up with the perfect solution, but there is always a hope to cling to and a dream to work toward.
Even in picture books, protagonists, faced with enormous odds to the contrary, can still achieve their goals. Believing in a dream and persevering to achieve that dream are important lessons for people of any age.
In Wanda's Roses (1994), a young girl discovers a bare, thorny bush in an abandoned lot. She thinks it's a rosebush, and decides to take care of it. Every day she goes to the lot and hauls away trash, so the bush can get more fresh air and sunshine. She waters the bush and talks to it, convinced she will be rewarded with sweet-smelling roses. Neighbors come by and help her and each tries to dissuade her from her dream of roses, telling her it's just a thorn bush. But Wanda persists. Finally, she decides that if her rosebush isn't going to give roses to her, then she will have to give roses to her rosebush.
She invites all the neighbors who helped her to a tea party in her rose garden. The neighbors feel terrible, knowing how hard she has worked and imagining how disappointed she will be. But the day of the tea party comes and everyone is surprised to see Wanda's rosebush covered with roses-paper roses that Wanda has carefully tied on each bare, thorny branch. But more surprising yet, every neighbor has brought a rosebush because they don't want Wanda to be disappointed. So they drink their tea and eat their muffins and then plant the rosebushes. And in a few weeks that lot was filled with the most beautiful, sweetest-smelling roses anyone had ever seen, just as Wanda had always said it would.
An unwritten rule of writing for children is that adults should not solve the problems for the young protagonist. One of the things I like about Wanda's Roses is that Wanda solves her problem to her own satisfaction. But because she believed so much and worked so hard, I wanted her to get real roses. And I believe that when you share your dreams with other people, they will do what they can to help you make your dreams come true.
I don't suppose you have to be a complete optimist to write for children, but I think it helps. For years my sister-inlaw has told me that I am naive. I realized recently that this has most likely been a contributing factor to my success. Like a child, I am rarely aware of people having ulterior motives; innuendo is lost on me; I trust people and give them the benefit of the doubt. I am blessed with an optimistic outlook and think the world is full of delights and marvels. I am confident that I will be able to handle whatever comes my way, if not on my own, then with help from family and friends. I am curious about a lot of things and enjoy stretching to meet a challenge. I have not lost my sense of wonder. I enjoy being silly.
I think a lot of these attributes show up in my characters. Like Kate, I enjoy going to new places, meeting new people, and experiencing different cultures. Like Elizabeth and Aunt Agatha, I am enchanted by the power of imagination and the joy of storytelling. Like Benny, I enjoy doing special things for the people I love. Like Wanda, I believe in my dreams, share them with others, and work hard to achieve them. And like the children in The Summer My Father Was Ten, I am awed by our power to forgive and love.
Susan Cooper describes writing for children as being able "to drop into the shadowy pool of their unconscious minds a few images that-perhaps, with luck-will echo through their lives and help them understand and even improve their world, our world."
This is the power of Story-that we can learn about ourselves from people who have never met us, and that we can learn about our world from people we may never meet. Through Story we can become a nineteenth-century New England mill worker, a Saudi girl betrothed to someone she has never met, or a young boy on his first day of kindergarten. We can see with someone else's eyes, hear with someone else's ears, and extend our experiences far beyond what one lifetime could provide.
Story is a way of knowing the world, a way to "try on" emotions, attitudes, philosophies, and experiences to find the ones that fit. It is enormous enough to contain the entire universe and particular enough to fill the needs of a single child. Story has power, humor, beauty, depth, mystery, and joy within it.
I write for children because I respect the power of Story in my own life and want to be a part of bringing that power into theirs.
Brisson, Pat. Your Best Friend, Kate. New York: Bradbury, 1989. -
__ . Kate Heads West. New York: Bradbury, 1990.
__ . Magic Carpet. New York: Bradbury, 1989
__ . Kate on the Coast. New York: Bradbury, 1992.
__ . Benny's Pennies. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
__ . Wanda's Roses. Honesdale: Boyds Mills, 1994.
Cooper, Susan. "Fantasy in the Real World." Horn Book Magazine 66 (1990): 304-15.
Helgren, David. "Place Name Ignorance Is National News." Journal of Geography 82 (1983): 176-8.
Kemball, Walter G. K-6 Geography: Themes, Key Ideas and Leaming Opportunities. Washington: National Council for Geographic Education ERIC ED 288-807.
Norman, Donald A. Things that Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Reading: Addison,
Paterson, Katherine. "Living in a Peaceful World." Horn Book Magazine 67 (1991): 32-38.
Rylant, Cynthia. The Relatives Came. New York: Bradbury, 1985.