It was asked by Linda Urban in a presentation she gave recently at the Whidbey Writer’s MFA program. Linda is the author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year.
Linda talked about finding your “big why?”
There are smaller whys. The reasons that underlies any individual story. Why are you writing it? Why does it matter?
And there’s a big why. Why do you write in the first place?
I was surprised to realize that there’s a link between the two for me. I’ve written all kinds of books from a picture book about the first ant in history to take a day off to a to a novel about a lizard who wants to be an artist to the stories of a grumpy bear and his friendship with an exuberant mouse.
I wouldn’t have thought they had much in common. But Linda’s question got me thinking about my work in progress—a new middle grade—and about what I most want kids to get from my work.
I think children’s stories do have a different tone, purpose, motivation, “ground” than adult stories and therefore have hopeful endings and characters who are growing rather than living lives of quiet desperation.
For me the most profound purpose and role of stories for children is “encouragement”. In the most fundamental meaning of that word. To give courage. The courage to live and enjoy and accomplish.
Because as a child you are a stranger in a strange land. What is this place? Why am I here? Am I safe? Where am I going? Am I capable of being in this place? Are the people around me capable? Is life fun? A curse? A blessing?
A child doesn’t know. We don’t know. Stories are our way of exploring those questions. They are a way to experience a thousand lives and possibilities in one life.
To me that is the endless fascination of story. Why do we tell them in the first place? Why do we have such an appetite for stories? T.v., radio, books, movies, conversation. We are forever telling and listening to stories. They obviously serve a basic need. Yes, they are entertainment and they should be, but what do we find “entertaining” about them? They entrance us because they address our most fundamental questions in an interesting way.
Even a concept picture book serves this purpose. Say a playful rhyming book about color. Part of what it’s accomplishing is telling a child, a reader that life is fun. Life is interesting. Look. See. Enjoy. Isn’t this a fascinating place?
That’s the “why” behind an ant taking a day off or a lizard being willing to dream big or a bear who learns to celebrate friendship, birthdays and sleep-overs.
Children’s stories don’t have to paint a perfect world—in fact if they are too unrealistic they fail because children recognize we are lying to them–but they should present a world that is worth living in. Why would we feed our children a diet of cynicism and despair? As we get older we can entertain grimmer possibilities, but not as children. I think that’s why parents instinctively shield their children from certain stories and I think as writers we generally recognize that we want to accomplish a certain tone in our stories. It’s not because we’re not sophisticated enough to see beyond bunnies and happy dancing flowers and wee little elves. Stories for children are generally positive and playful and hopeful and joyful, because we recognize that is our basic purpose. To bring back word from adulthood to children that life is okay. You can do it. Come on in.
For me, that’s my big “why.”