I have always believed in story. I believe in it still.
But I am learning something in these late days of my career. Stories don’t have to be inventions. They can come from the world of very solid facts.
I used to accept a distinction I remember Madeleine L’Engle making in her uniquely emphatic way. Libraries, she liked to say, are divided between fact—and here she would wave a dismissive hand toward the shelves that held nonfiction—and truth. Truth, of course, meant fiction.
There is no question but that fiction spins out the very solid truth of its author’s psyche.
There is no question, either, that I have used my fiction to reveal my own truth, a truth drawn from that place of perpetually unfulfilled longing that I have carried—that we all carry—from childhood.
I love imagining characters, giving them names and histories, investing them with a desire drawn from my own hidden desires. I love following their struggle. The resolution these creations of mine bring to the page goes far beyond any my own life has ever achieved.
The power of that resolution, both for myself and my readers, comes from the feelings story engenders.
Feelings transform us all.
In recent years, though, I have discovered something that belies Madeleine’s neat division. Facts can also be vehicles for story. And framed as story, facts can lead us to a deeply felt truth.
To make that discovery I have had to open doors into worlds I’ve seldom visited before. Astronomy. Quantum physics. Botany. Biology.
And beyond those doors I have found larger stories than I am accustomed to telling. They are spun from the new facts I’ve been gathering, but even in terms of Madeleine’s divisions, they are profoundly true.
That is because facts told in the right cadence, gathered into the right form, shaped toward the right meaning can move us. And feeling is all.
Thus my latest picture book, The Stuff of Stars, published by Candlewick in 2018. Thus two new recently acquired picture books, We, the Curious Ones, which explores the tension between science and story over the centuries, and One Small Acorn, which tells the story of a single acorn within the story of a forest within the story of us.
What drew me to each of these topics wasn’t the facts, though those fascinated me, but the story inside the facts.
Facts are useful and necessary. They can be enormously interesting, even astounding. But they can easily be presented without heart and too often are.
Facts, however, that open a door to understanding ourselves and our place in the world can bring us to feelings that transform, just as fiction does. Both sides of the library can speak truth.
We live today in a collapsing world. Yet the wonders that stretch on every side, both the wonders of far-flung space and the wonders that lie beneath our toes, fill me with awe.
And I can think of no more profound truth than what we find when we open ourselves to awe.
None of the stories that grew, consciously or unconsciously, out of my childhood angst ever discovered awe.
For that I had to discover facts.