A friend of mine has recently decided to read her way through every book I have ever published. I was amazed that she wanted to do it, that anyone would, but, naturally, happy to supply her with reading material. She hasn’t only been making her way through a stack of picture books and novels, however. She does me the even greater favor of commenting on and asking questions about each of the longer works as she finishes it.
The last round of our discussion came down to one fundamental question: Why do you write about such hard topics? Especially for young readers. She wasn’t complaining, just asking.
Which set me to examining the question myself. Why do I choose to tell the kind of stories I do? The very first novel I wrote, Foster Child (my second to be published and long out of print), was about sexual abuse in the name of Jesus. In the mid 1970’s you couldn’t get much more controversial than that! No doubt it would still be controversial if it were published today.
Despite the fact that “Where do your ideas come from?” is the most common question asked of writers, a question I’ve answered a thousand times in front of a gym full of kids, I found myself pausing when my friend asked. Why am I drawn to such heavy topics for a young audience?
Here’s the story of my beginnings and my journey to those hard topics. When I first began to take my writing seriously, began to sit down to work every day in an organized way expecting to produce something, I applied myself to picture books. I had young children and I had been reading picture books until they were coming out of my ears. And, I’ll admit it with some chagrin now … it looked easy. Until I tried it.
I persisted, though. I traveled back and forth to the public library bringing home armloads of picture books, reading and reading. Surely, I could do that!
But when I sat down at my typewriter—yes, typewriter, it was that long ago—nothing much emerged. I had few ideas. (And if I’d found some viable ideas I wouldn’t have known how to frame them as picture books anyway, because I knew nothing of the technicalities of producing such a thing. But that’s a different topic.)
Gradually, when I visited the library I began moving up the stacks, away from the bins of picture books, and into juvenile novels. I didn’t know contemporary novels for young people. I had grown up in a small town with a very small public library (my school had no library at all), and the books in our house were from my mother’s childhood. So I found contemporary novels for young people exciting. Much had happened since Louisa May Alcott and the Little Prudy series.
Finally, I stumbled upon a shelf set away from the rest labeled “Newbery Award.” I didn’t even know what the Newbery Award was, but somebody liked those books, so I took several home. And that’s when I fell in love. The two books that moved me the most deeply on that first round of reading were Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer and William Armstrong’s Sounder.
I came away from that reading knowing what I needed to know. I could write about anything that might touch a child’s life, and if I wrote honestly and well it could be published for young people. It could even win awards! That was a revelation!
And with that understanding, I knew what I was meant to write. I would write what moved me, what would move my readers.
Now, I’ll admit that’s only a partial answer to my friend’s question. I might, after all, have fallen in love with humor or folk tales, high fantasy or nonfiction. But I didn’t. I fell in love with serious, realistic stories that made me feel.
Why? The answer to that one requires digging into a whole new layer of my psyche (or a whole new blog). But for this week, I’ll give it a one-sentence answer:
I found myself on a mission to be a truth teller.