Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Voices of Children

I’m well into my second middle grade novel, and as I write I sometimes think of the comments readers have made about my first book, The Dragon of Cripple Creek (Abrams).  I think about what touched them, worried them, drew them in. It stirs the 12 year old within me, who jumps up, saying, “Yes! Told you!”
When a group of sixth graders wanted to know how a man my age could have the mind of a 12 year old, that’s what I told them: The 12 year old still lives inside me. As does the 18 year old, and the 24 year old …

When asked how I could think like a girl (my novel is narrated by 12-year-old Katlin Graham), I answered more thoughtfully, carefully: I have three sisters; I’ve raised a daughter; I listen and observe. While I developed the story, I lived the life of Kat, I dreamed her dreams. It wasn’t much of a stretch to do so, because a lot of the issues children her age ponder and face are not gender specific.

But more significant still, is how the imagination works. No one asked me how I got into the mind of a millennia-old dragon, but he was real enough that my readers didn’t doubt his existence within the confines of the story. Even cried over him at the end.

We humans are gifted with the ability to empathize and identify with other living beings. This gift is given in varying degrees of course, and equally true, the personal expression of this gift is in varying degrees. It’s one of those essentials that determines whether relationships succeed or fail, or fall somewhere whimpering in between, which, sadly, is where many relationships seem to arrive.

The same is true for the writer-reader relationship. The writer must speak in a voice that echoes at least one of the myriad voices whispering in our hearts, or risk losing connection.

The Dragon of Cripple Creek is on the Accelerated Reader list, and I know three teachers who have added it to their curriculum. Anticipating one of my school visits, several students wrote me letters. I've selected some of their expressions, and follow them with related thoughts. 

“I find your novel incredibel because it reminds me of my life.”
“Dillon reminds me of myself because we’re both clever and creative.” 

We as writers hold up a mirror before our readers, in which they can see themselves, identify more clearly who they are and wish to be. We also hold up a window, through which they can see beyond themselves, understand others. 

“I love dragons, wish I could meet one.”
“I also am in love with dragons, so, connection.” 

Dreams. Wishes. As a child, I wished I could fly, believed it was possible, wondered what it would be like. I had seen Peter Pan on TV. I tried with my whole being to fly, leaping off the couch, feeling I could soar. When I didn’t succeed, it wasn’t that it was not possible, but that I hadn’t discovered the secret. Another desire was to become invisible. Conversely, but coming from the same simplicity of faith, I was anxious I’d meet a ghost, in my wanderings outside at night, or when the house was vacant. My current work in progress features a ghost, though I doubt he will create much anxiety. That comes from suspense, from threatening circumstances, from the precarious hope that all will be well in the end. 

“The book had me anxious the whole entire time.” 

That’s included in the writer’s intent: to keep the pages turning, the reader engaged, then to bring it all together in a satisfying resolve. But it's more than that: There's a reason we become anxious, and it's personal. Like quiet harmony, our own hopes and fears are involved. The final resolve may not be without sadness—usually it is not if it reflects any reality—but a feeling of completion. We should not disappoint. 

“I will tell you the truth I don’t like to read but this is the kind of book I like to read.”
“I really, really hate reading, But …. when I read this its like I don’t wanna stop.” 

These are some of the most rewarding expressions a writer can hear. To know you’ve touched someone. It’s one of the wonderful reasons we’re on earth: to give joy and receive it in return. When I see a young reader holding my book up and grinning, it’s a reminder to me of what matters most.

From a third grade teacher: 

I am slowing down my usual pace [of reading aloud] because the kids seem fascinated with Kat's thoughts (which makes me want to read more expressively). Today we even turned out the lights, and I read in the semi-darkness as Kat inched closer to the gold. Their expressions were most gratifying. We've completed an hour of read-aloud this week and haven't made it to Chapter 2. With third graders one must stop for their commentaries—you've provoked a few. One girl had to explain [for a passage that mentions the uvula] "that thing hanging down the back of your throat."

"Fascinated with Kat's thoughts." Why is that? Perhaps it's to see "thinking" at work, be mindful of critical thought, help them process their own. 

And a few are intrigued by writing itself, of communicating through story: 

“I also think you should stick with writing children’s books more.”
“It must take years of practice.” 

It does take years of practice, and I’m still practicing.
Value the voices of children, who can reveal to us what touches them, entertains them, excites them, how they see themselves and others in their own context, as they relate to the worlds we’ve made.