In the years since On My Honor won a Newbery Honor award, I have received thousands of letters from my readers. Many of these letters come because teachers give their students an assignment to write to me, and these sometimes say things like, "I loved On My Honor because of your use of similes and metaphors" or "I think On My Honor was a great book because it taught me never to lie to my parents." And I must admit that I find myself wanting to write back something like, "Oh, come on now!"
I have never loved a book for its similes and metaphors, and, equally, no story has ever convinced me to be good. If I am good, it's because other people have taught meand, perhaps more important, shown me through examplethat the world is a better place for my goodness . . . and yours. But I don't read stories in order either to notice similes and metaphors or to reach some state of moral perfection. I read stories because I want to feel. I want to remain warm and safe in my own life while struggling through someone else's storm. I want to live, for a brief time, inside someone else's skin. And stories are the only way I know to do that . . . writing them or reading them, either one.
It happens that On My Honor is the only one of my books to be based, from beginning to end, on something that really happened in my childhood. All of my books dip into my life for one small piece or anotherwhere else am I going to find material I know so well?but this is the only one that uses an event whole. It wasn't something that happened to me. It happened to a good friend of mine when we were both about thirteen.
My friend's name was Ralph, and he and another boy I did not know decided one day to go swimming in the Vermillion River. We were all forbidden to swim in that river. It was dirty, and it was dangerous. But for whatever reasonand I have no idea what the reason was; perhaps it was just a hot day and the cool water seemed too inviting to resistRalph and the other boy went in. They may, in fact, have only been wading. I'm not certain about that. But Ralph's friend, who could not swim, suddenly stepped off into deep water and went under . . . and didn't come up again.
Ralph tried repeatedly to dive for him, but he was unable to reach him. When he finally got out of the river, he knew his friend had drowned. And he must have felt so frightenedand so guiltybecause he knew he'd been doing something he wasn't supposed to do, that he went home, went up to his room, closed the door, and didn't tell anybody what had happened.
Now Ralph and I were pretty good friends, but he didn't tell me, either. As you can imagine, he must not have felt like talking about what happened to anyone. But I can still remember exactly where I stood in my yard when one of his younger brothers told me about what had happened to Ralph and to the other boy. And I remember feeling at my very core what it must have felt like to be Ralph in that moment, to have something so terrible happen, to want so badly to go back and do a day over, to make different decisions, and to know that you could not do that . . . not ever.
I forgot about the incident eventually. It hadn't happened to me, after all. And by the time I did remember it again I had been writing stories for kids for a number of years, and for the first time I saw the events as the basis for a story. I saw it as a story that would make it possible for me to feel that moment again with my friend and to find my way to a resolution. And so On My Honor was born.
When I talk about the origins of On My Honor, I always suspect that people must think, "Well, that one was easy. After all, you practically stole the story!" And in some ways, of course, I did. I borrowed the events of the story from real events. Everything was in place for me when I sat down to write, except for creating a character who was clearly not Ralph and a family that was not his family. But nonetheless, On My Honor is not Ralph's story. It is, in many ways, far more my story than his. Why? When you read On My Honor you know what Joel is thinking and what he is feeling at every moment. But how much did I know of what my friend Ralph thought and felt that day? Absolutely nothing. He never said a word to me about those events. So where did I get those thoughts and feelings? The same place I always do . . . from myself.
I went back, not to the drowning of that boy I didn't even know, but to smaller moments in my own life when I had done something of which I was ashamed, moments I would have given anything to erase after they happened. And I felt my way to a resolution. Joel's resolution came in his father's arms. I never had such a moment with my own father, not about anything, and I don't know that Ralph did with his father, either, but in my story I could give it to both of us . . . and to my readers.
And so the story grew, less out of the real incident than from my own need to find connection. And that is, in truth, the way each of my stories grows. It may start with an external event gleaned from a newspaper article, from something overheard in the grocery store or told to me by a friend, but before the story can be born, it must first pass through my own thoughts and feelings. It must find that place inside me where I need to struggle to resolve that particular issue. And when it does, the story is true. Not because it "really happened," but because, for me, it is real.