Category Archives: On My Honor

To Teach or Not to Teach

bk_honorI couldn’t begin to count the number of letters I’ve received from young readers that say something like, “When I read On My Honor I learned always to tell the truth.” Each time I’m tempted to write back and say, “Really?”

Teachers love to ask their students to identify the “theme” of a story, and there’s nothing wrong with that concept. It asks the reader to look beneath the story action for meaning. And every story, whether it intends to or not, has meaning. The meaning can, quite simply, be found in the resolution of the story problem. If the thief gets caught, the theme—without needing to be stated—is “Crime doesn’t pay.” If he doesn’t, the theme is something entirely different, perhaps even “If you want something, take it.” Or maybe something much more subtle. Maybe the uncaught thief suffers in some other more interesting way which says, “Be true to yourself. You’re the one you have to live with.”

But that doesn’t mean that stories—at least not subtle, interesting, good stories—are written to teach. We don’t assume that adults read novels to be taught “lessons.” Why should stories written for young people be different ? Except, perhaps, that we’re always looking for occasions to improve the young.

Not long ago someone on a children’s literature ­­­­­list serve asked, “Why do writers object to having their work called ‘didactic’? Surely they want their readers to learn from their stories.”

And the answer is, “Yes . . . and no.” We don’t enter our stories with some piece of wisdom we want to teach, we come with questions we are compelled to ask. Such as, Where does my friend’s responsibility end and mine begin? (On My Honor.) What does it mean to be part of a family? (Runt) How do I find comfort and meaning? (Little Dog, Lost).

In On My Honor Joel feels responsible for Tony’s bad judgment and thus his death, though Joel is not, in fact, responsible for it, except tangentially. The story’s resolution doesn’t exonerate Joel, but it does bring him out on the other side . . . into feeling his father’s all-encompassing love. In the final moment of the story, being in that love is enough. We know the pain won’t be gone in the morning—Tony will still be dead and Joel will still feel guilty for his part in the fatal accident—but we also know Joel’s father will still be there, and that’s what matters.

It’s the feeling that gives the story its meaning. I suppose you could say it presents the theme, but I have never put the theme into words and I never will. To do so would be to diminish it. What can be felt in that final story moment is larger than anything that could be said, certainly larger than any moral that might be imposed on it.

A theme is not a lesson to be stamped in the middle of the reader’s forehead. It is a truth a writer has struggled with and found some nourishment in. And it is experienced—that’s what a story does, draws the reader into an experience—rather than proclaimed.

I once heard a Newbery medalist tell about her grandson’s asking her for the theme of her award-winning novel. He needed to know for an assignment. She said, “Well, I suppose it’s . . .” and he wrote what she said. He got a D on his paper. The teacher told him he’d gotten the theme wrong!

What do my stories mean? Well, Little Dog, Lost means what the reader feels. It means the longing the reader experiences as a dog searches for a boy, as a boy searches for a dog, as an old man searches for a connection of any kind again. It means the joy everyone feels—characters and readers alike—when they find one another.

If the story works, when you have experienced all that longing, been rewarded by all that joy, you may not have learned anything, but you will be changed . . . just a bit.

And that’s what stories are for.

The Gift of Truth

9_3liesMy mother lied to me when I was a child.

Now, I don’t want to be hard on her. After all, I grew up at a time when lying to children was routine. Any topic that embarrassed adults was deemed inappropriate for kids—sex, bodily functions, adult foibles of all kinds, finances, birth, death . . . sex.

My mother, however, was probably better at lying than most. She not only lied with her silence on all those terrible topics. When asked a direct question she lied to my face.

An example: Not a word was spoken in front of us kids about my aunt Carol’s divorce. When it occurred to me one day to ask, “Didn’t there used to be an Uncle Kenny?” my mother said simply, flatly, “No.” And I was left to struggle with my memories of the man who had fathered my little cousin.

The result? Years later when I began writing novels for young people, I had one overarching goal. To be a truth teller. No matter what topic I took on, I wrote it straight. For instance, in 1977 I published a novel for middle graders that dealt with sexual molestation in the name of Jesus. You’d better believe I had a reputation in my field, and I was proud of it.

I was not my mother. I could be counted on never to lie to my readers, either by my silence or by my words.

Life never happens in a straight line, though. About fifteen years into my career, a change came along, a deep one. I left my marriage of 28 years and formed a relationship with a woman. I was entirely open about who I’d discovered myself to be. I was open with my young-adult children, with my elderly mother, with my husband’s congregation as I left the marriage (he was a pastor), with my writing students, with my friends. Some accepted this new knowledge of me, some turned away, but being open was the only way I knew to live, so I hid nothing, except . . .

Have I mentioned that I am a children’s writer?

Have I mentioned that this all happened twenty five years ago?

Have I mentioned that a librarian in California said to me one day, speaking of a well-known picture-book writer, “We know he died of AIDS, but we don’t say it, because his books would stop selling instantly.”

Have I mentioned that publishing and speaking with a bit of teaching on the side is my only source of income?

Have I mentioned that I like to eat?

bk_honorJust as I was turning this corner in my life, my career was blossoming. My novel, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor Award. I was traveling all over the country, speaking to young people and to adults. I was still writing about hard topics, topics I cared about passionately. I was still a truth teller, except for this one small matter of who I was . . . and . . . well, I had to survive, didn’t I?

Then one day the inevitable happened. I looked at myself and asked, What kind of a truth-teller are you? You live in a world where young people are dying—literally killing themselves—for lack of support and information about their sexuality. They are dying because no one is willing to tell them that they can be who they are and still live a happy, productive life.

You, I reminded myself, are in a unique position to reach them. And you are choosing silence.

What else could I do? I had to come out professionally, but I needed to do it quietly, because I am at my core a quiet person, and I needed to do it in a way that would be useful rather than sensational.

My first thought was to go to other gay and lesbian children’s writers—there are lots of us floating around out here—and say, “Come out with me. Let’s put together a book of our own coming-out stories so gay and lesbian kids will know we’re here.” But before I’d extended the first invitation I realized I couldn’t do that. The decision to come out is always personal, and at that time it would have been more than personal. Coming out could have been career destroying for anyone writing for young people. A person can choose that kind of risk, but no one can ask it of anyone else.

9_3amIblueAnd so I came up with a different approach. First I found a courageous editor who accepted my plan. Then I approached other writers in my field without regard to their sexuality. I chose people whose names would be noticed and whose work would be fine—I wanted librarians to feel obligated to put the book on their shelves—and asked them each to write a short story for me. My only requirement was that the story center on a gay or lesbian character. The collection came to be called Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, and it was published almost 20 years ago to more acclaim than I could have dreamed.

And that would be the end of this story except for one thing. I was working with two editors at the time. One happened to be a gay man, the other a lesbian. When they learned what I was doing, the man supported me—in fact, he contributed a story to my collection—but the woman was very concerned. She didn’t say it, but I knew she was afraid she would never be able to publish me again.

When Am I Blue? was almost completed the editor who had been my supporter asked a question: Are you going to come out in your personal essay attached to the short story you’ve contributed to the collection? I told him I was, that coming out was, for me, part of the point.

9_3QHis support vanished.

I was thrown off balance. Should I revise my essay? I still had time, but just barely. People were going to guess anyway because my name was on the collection as the editor. Was it better to leave them guessing?

Then my other editor, the one who had never wanted me to do the book, asked the same question. I gave her the same answer and held my breath, waiting for the inevitable response. What I got was silence, a long silence. Then she sighed and said something I’ve never forgotten. “Well,” she said, “maybe for every door that’s closed another will be opened.”

That, I said to myself, sounds exactly right, and I let my essay stand.

In case you haven’t guessed, I am still eating.

I’m proud that Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence has played its small part in the revolution we’ve all witnessed these past 20 years. I’m grateful for the letters I’ve received telling me how those stories changed lives, even saved lives. And I’m delighted to say that last year I contributed an essay to a book called The Letter Q. The book is comprised of essays from 64 different gay and lesbian writers for young people, all of us acknowledging our sexuality and offering advice to our younger, less certain selves.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the impulse is that sends us on our journeys. It matters only that we set off, taking each step with as much conviction and self-honesty as we can muster.

Who knew that my mother’s well-intentioned lies would give me the gift of truth?

“Refusing Them the Right to be Hurt”

 This is a letter I received from a fellow writer and reader of my blog after I talked last week about one reader’s reaction to A Very Little Princess, a young novel of mine some adults consider too painful for young readers.

bk_honorThank you, Moira. I will let your good letter speak for itself:

Dear Marion Dane Bauer,

Your latest webpage column, “Really Touched Me,” really touches me in a very pertinent way right now.

The book I’m writing was originally going to be short and about a single incident. I reread “On My Honor” for inspiration. But, quite unexpectedly, my book grew, collecting and incorporating characters, scenes and life experiences I’ve gathered over the decades. I love the story, and I love writing it, but one thing is always at the back of my mind. The story has to do with a girl who’s 11 and 3/4ths (she would insist that I mention the 3/4ths) who must make a choice about facing a grim reality of life. The choice is imposed upon her by a beloved aunt. My protagonist mulls over it for days, and, thinking that since what she must do is deemed of no consequence by two kids her age and by adults whose opinions she’s asked for, she decides. Her choice blows up her interior world. But no one else thinks it should bother her, and certainly not as much as it does.

If I write it well, I hope that the reader feels my protagonist’s moral and ethical crisis and the pain that comes with it. But what lingers at the back, and often in the front, of my mind is, will it hurt children? Should I protect children from this pain? Will parents and possibly librarians and booksellers be as angry with me as they are with you about “On My Honor” and “The Very Little Princess?”

Nothing can stop me from writing the story—I love it too much, I want to share it, and one of my particularly aggressive characters would NEVER let me rest if I didn’t—but now and then I think, “Maybe I should just self-publish it and give copies to friends. Would an agent or publisher even want to read the entire manuscript about a girl who must choose whether to kill, and what a person should feel about killing?” But now I ask myself what you ask in your column, “… should the book have been withheld from those who would be touched, who would, perhaps, even grow a bit larger emotionally for accompanying this story journey?”

Your column reassured me that, whatever the outcome concerning finding an agent or a publisher, and any future reactions from adults, I have no choice but to allow my character to make *her* choice. With fictional children, as well as real ones, to refuse them the right to be hurt in learning the whole of being alive is to restrict the quality of those lives.

Thank you, thank you for your column. It’s just what I needed to read just when I needed to read it.

Very best regards,

Moira Manion

And Moira, I’m sure your story—with all its pain—will be exactly what some young readers need as well.

Serendipity

serendipityLast week I talked about what it takes to build a career as a writer.

I discussed the importance of setting a writing schedule and keeping it.

I said that it is essential to learn to revise and to get the kind of input that tells you what kinds of revisions will be useful.

And then I marched straight on into the deepest secret of every successful writer . . . serendipity.

No writing career gets very far without it.

My serendipity came about in 1987 when my novel of the year before, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor award. That happened nearly fifteen years after I moved my writing from a guilty hobby to a fulltime job, and eleven years after Shelter from the Wind, my first novel, was published. During those fifteen years I worked hard and constantly. In fact, the main complaint I heard from my children when they were growing up was that I was always writing. But despite that hard work and despite publishing six novels prior to On My Honor, I never once, in all that time, came close to earning enough money to live on.

Receiving an award of that stature does more than change one’s immediate cash flow. It opens doors. It puts a stamp of approval on a career for years to come. And that’s what I mean by serendipity. There had to have been dozens of other books out that year that were equally deserving of such notice, but mine happened to catch the right attention at the right time and I was able to move forward into my career with a new authority.

Coincidentally, that was also the moment in my life for a much less serendipitous though necessary event. I left my marriage of twenty-eight years. But I left with the deep knowledge that my newly successful writing career was one of the gifts from the man who had for so long provided a roof for my typewriters and for me and our children and various foster children and exchange students and cats and dogs and hamsters. And I will always be grateful for the generosity with which he made my career possible.

Not everyone has the privilege of being provided for, however, while trying to get established. And not everyone will have a serendipitous moment of being lifted out of the pack. What do you do then?

Just keep writing because you love to write and keep slogging at the unglamorously hard work. One doesn’t exclude the other. They can live side by side.

What further tricks I know for keeping a career alive I’ll talk about next week.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

ideaI got the idea for this blog when I was meditating this morning. Yes, I know, I’m not supposed to get ideas meditating. In fact, that’s supposed to be a time for leaving ideas behind. But when my mind loses its quiet focus on my breath and skitters off to someplace else, ideas about what to write or how to fix something I’m currently writing are one of the more productive results it can return with. “Thinking,” I remind myself happily as I tuck the idea away, and then I return to my breath.

It’s the most frequent question fiction writers are asked, wherever we go, whatever age readers we’re talking to: Where do your ideas come from?

And it is probably the hardest question to answer.

I always want to say: They come from everywhere . . . and anywhere. And that, of course, is true. It also gives absolutely no satisfaction to the questioner. So here’s an attempt to define “everywhere and anywhere.”

Five BooksOn My Honor started from something that actually happened, not to me but to a friend of mine, when we were both about thirteen years old.

A Bear Named Trouble began from an AP news story, only about two paragraphs long, about an adolescent brown bear that had broken repeatedly into the Anchorage Zoo. How wonderful! I thought. A wild bear who wants to live in a zoo! What a perfect story!

Runt came out of my remembering my passionate love for Felix Salten’s novels when I was a child, the most famous of which is Bambi. I wanted to write a story that I, and I hoped others, could love as I had loved those.

A Very Little Princess and its prequel, A Very Little Princess: Rose’s Story, came from fantasies I carried around as a child. I used to pretend I was a three-inch-high doll living in a family of normal sized people.

Little Dog, Lost began in a very different place. It started with my wanting to write a story that would work for young readers without giving up the natural flow of my own style. Thus I turned to verse to give lots of white space on the page. Through verse I can deliver sentences in bite-sized chunks without shortening them, chunks that are easier for developing readers to manage. And the topic? From a combination of my own much-loved little dog, a cavalier King Charles spaniel named Dawn, and a friend’s service dog, Ruby, a terrier mix with the most astonishing airplane-wing ears I’ve ever seen. And since stories are always based on a problem—no problem, no story—I simply asked myself what problem would work best with a dog as a main character? To get her lost, of course.

But the topic is only the beginning of any story. What brings a story alive is the writer’s heart. So always, whatever else I’m writing, I’m really writing both about myself and for myself, about my own longing, my own experience of being “lost,” my own joy at being found.

What a perfect way to make a living, feeding my own heart again and again and again. And if I do the job well enough, my hope always is that I’ll manage to feed your heart, too, wherever my story idea might come from.