I have been writing stories for young people for thirty years and have more than fifty books out in the world. When you do anything for so long—probably especially writing stories—there comes a time when you must begin searching for new sources of inspiration. And Runt came out of such a search.
A number of years ago, a publisher asked me to write a series of books for young readers that was to be published simultaneously in England and the United States. I once spent a year living in England, and I know just enough about that country to know that childhood—and especially school—is different there than it is here in some important ways. I didn't know how I could write stories, especially stories that would probably involve school, and make them work both places.
Then I had the idea of using animal characters. Not dressed up animal characters standing in for people, but animals in their real setting, behaving—mostly—the way those animals really do. They would talk to one another, but apart from that, they would be a real turtle, frog, bird, squirrel, bear, etc. I found writing about these animals in their pond and forest world enormously satisfying, and while I was writing those four small books—Turtle Dreams, Bears Hiccups, Christmas in the Forest, and Frog's Best Friend—I remembered something I had almost forgotten … some of my favorite books from my own childhood.
Now, you might think that favorite books are something a writer wouldn't forget, and I suppose I hadn't forgotten them exactly. But I had never thought of them as the kind of book I might write myself, and now, suddenly, I did. The books I was thinking about were by a German writer named Felix Salten, and I had read them in translation—though I didn't know that at the time. I loved Mr. Salten's books so passionately that I would read each one as rapidly as I could and then, when I came to the last page, want to cry because the story was over. The best known of these is one you will recognize, probably not because you have read it, but for the Disney movie that grew out of it. The book is called Bambi.
What if I were to write such a book? I asked myself. A book about the forest world I grew up on the edge of in northern Illinois, the one I'd often camped and kayaked in as an adult in Minnesota. But what kind of animal should I write about? And very quickly the answer came … wolves. Wolves, I suppose, because I love dogs, the wolf's distant cousin, and have kept a dog at my side all the adult life. (When I was growing up, my parents wouldn't let me have one.) Wolves because they exist here in Minnesota. But wolves, too, because their family life is like ours in so many ways. I knew I could write about them, staying true to their wolf natures, and still build a family story, the kind of story I value.
Before I could do anything else, I had to learn about wolves. I knew only the surfaces about them which most of us know. So I spent about three months reading books by experts on wolf behavior. I visited a wolf sanctuary. And slowly, slowly, I found my main character … Runt. From the moment I recorded his birth, I quite fell in love.
As much in love as I was, the story didn't write easily. I stood balanced on a fence between the human world of language and all the emotions language lets us know we feel and the animal world of instinct and simple necessity. Runt had to be fully wolf, but he had to open a door into a human heart. I wrote and wrote and rewrote and rewrote until finally I found my story. And then I sent it off into the world.
And now Runt belongs to you, to everyone who reads his story. I can only hope you love him, as I do, and that reading about him sends you on to read other books by other authors until the world of your heart is quite filled with stories.
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