My Beginnings

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.

Foster ChildWhich 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.

Slave DancerFinally, 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.

13 thoughts on “My Beginnings

  1. writersideup

    Life is too short to skirt around important issues, I think. I related to so much of what you expressed here and think it comes down to a variety of things. First off, when you started getting into writing, there were probably fewer books that addressed certain subjects and you saw the need for them. Also, if you’re the type person who reads to be moved–to feel something,and want to come away feeling like you’ve been touched or perhaps enlightened–I think it’s natural to be driven to want to do the same, with your own voice, with our own purpose, with your own way of lending to helping and enlightening others in truthful ways.

    I know that a lot of what I’ve written (board books, picture books) are not things that the world actually needs more of. Do any of us NEED more counting books, ABCs or anything of the like? Not really. Do we need more “funny” books, or “I love you” books or books on “how to share”? Not necessarily. ALL books have a purpose, and laughing is good. Being taught good manners it good. But also learning how to face life rather than running away is critical. Do we need books that address important, difficult issues? I think so, especially because each author’s voice is different and the way subjects are addressed will reach different kids (or adults) in unique ways. You want to make a difference. You know it’s important to tell kids things “like it is” in ways they can understand. They need to learn what reality is and how to cope and literature, when done well, is an ideal way to do that. It’s certainly my opinion 🙂

    Do you think that’s at the core of why it’s what you were drawn to? I know the books I most want to write are the ones that have more “meat,” and deeper value.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Yes, I do think that’s what the truth telling is about, making a difference. And while, as you say, the world may not need another counting book in any cosmic sense, the individual child learning to count needs it very much. So our making a difference works on different levels.

  2. Anna Marie Black

    Ok, Marion, tell the truth. You always do, I know, but that’s what I wanted to say, to quip, as a take on your last line about “truth teller: why are you writing your memoir in poetry when the body of most of your work is in prose. I know you answered once about not wanting to write about other people as it regards your life and poetry apparently allows you to do that. (You phrased your answer better than my rephrasing here–apologies.) But this is the question I constantly find myself asking, and it came to mind once again as I read the end of your blog here.

    But thank you for sharing that personal story about your journey toward writing realistic, truthful fiction.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Ah, Anna Marie, I understand your question entirely. And here’s the explanation. I am a truth teller about my own self and about the kinds of information adults try to hide that kids need, but I am distinctly not a truth teller about other people in my life, people who might read my words and be embarrassed or hurt. I see memoirists who write about people who are or have been close and are still living (and reading), and I ask myself, how do they do that and ever return to their families? The advantage of verse is that I can choose the moments I want to reveal and skip over others, because verse is so intense and so specific. And it doesn’t require the same kind of linkage that prose seems to demand. Having said all that, though, I’m still struggling, and who knows how I’ll come down to writing this in the end. Maybe even in prose . . . at least in part.

  3. Beth

    We finished Little Dog, Lost today and read Mark’s speech together as a class. My students have loved the unveiling of this story. We talked daily about the influence that new information and details had on our feelings about the characters. We cheered for Mark, The Dog Park Pack, Charles Larue, Buddy/Ruby and Mark’s mom. Our take away was that knowledge is influential. We will carry this story with us and refer to it often as we travel throughout the rest of the school year. Thanks, Marion!

  4. Carleen M. Tjader

    I like the idea of a writer as a truth teller. Your blog always gives me insight and something to “think on.”

  5. Catherine Egan

    I think it’s always interesting to think about why we write the things we do (or why other people read / write the things they do!). Fantasy was my first love as a child, but as a writer I took a fairly roundabout route before coming back to my first love. I am so enjoying your blog and I wish I could remember who pointed me towards it so I could thank them – but in the meantime, I’ll just thank you :).

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      And I’ll thank you, Catherine. It does my heart good to hear from readers. And I agree that thinking about the why of the choices we–or others–make about our writing/reading is extremely informative. Carrying that knowledge forward, however, as we make our choices about what we write is somewhat complex. In some part, we need to be making our choices without thought for what the dominant theme is that calls us, least our choices begin to be mechanical and too much the same. Just letting those choices call, responding to the energy they bring is what matters. The analysis can happen after the fact.


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