Listening to Bruce Coville‘s opening keynote at the Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference last weekend was more like hearing a stand-up comedian than a best-selling author.  While emphasizing the importance of humor in writing, he lamented how political correctness, intellectualism and an extreme  commitment to religion can sometimes cause people to forget that the world is a funny place.  To wit, he told this joke:

Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: THAT’S NOT FUNNY!  You shouldn’t say that!

He urged us writers to remember that humor is sacred.  A child’s first sound upon leaving the womb is a cry, but the first sound the child learns to make is laughter.

But Coville, the author of 95 books for children, including the My Teacher is an Alien Series and The Unicorn Chronicles (so sorry about that unfortunate unicorn reference, Bruce…), also had a more poignant message to deliver.  Kids today, he said, are facing a spiritual crisis.  Their hearts are hungry, and we writers have an obligation to feed them.

He described what he thinks of as the three stages of childhood in American culture:

  1. Pilgrim/Pioneer days.  Child as a functioning member of an economic unit:  Sure, parents loved their children, but children were expected to contribute to the family welfare almost as much as adults.
  2. Post WWII.  The child as an object of adoration:  In a time of unprecedented prosperity, parents who survived two world wars and the Great Depression wanted nothing more than to give their children a better, easier life than they had themselves.
  3. Modern Culture.  The child as a consumer:  Children help keep the economy moving by accumulating a lot of stuff.

So kids today have more stuff than ever before.  More gadgets, more toys, more clothes, more everything.  Yet, these things do not engage their hearts.  Their hearts are hungry for real work – the kind of work that comes from joy and makes you feel useful.  They need models of courage, hope and joy.  Life requires risk, and today’s children are overprotected.  We live in a world where people might notify the authorities if a parent lets a child walk home from school.  Books provide a place for children to show courage, take risks, experience joy, and emerge wiser.  As writers, our courage is to reach deep, deep inside and display all parts of ourselves.  Those are the stories that teach empathy and fill hearts.

To do this, we must ask ourselves why we are writing for children.  But Coville warns us not to stop with the first answer that comes.  Go deeper, and deeper and deeper.  Push that “why” as far as it will go and then you will know what you need to put into your writing.

I started this exercise and came up with the following, even though I know these responses still only scratch the surface.

I am writing for children because:

  1. Children believe anything is possible, and I want to enable them to hold on to that belief as long as they can – perhaps even forever.
  2. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without books.  Creating stories is my way of giving back that joy and wonder to future generations of kids.
  3. By loving books, and specifically characters in books, children learn to love themselves.  Why?  Because whether they realize it or not, they see themselves there – either as they are or as they want to be.
  4. By writing for children, I teach my own children (and all children) that it’s okay to follow your dream.

What about you?  Why do you write what you write?  Or if you’re not a writer, why do you do what you do?  Because the question applies to all of life’s pursuits, not just writing.

Categories: Authors, Children's Books, Publishing, SCBWI, Writing · Tags: , , , ,

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12 Comments

  1. What a wonderful thought provoking post!

    I so agree with him, about the constraints on humor and the impact our materialistic society has had on children.

    When I was growing up, if we had a box to play with, we filled it from our fertile imaginations and ended up with a fort, a house, a restaurant, a space ship.

    NO BATTERIES REQUIRED.

    • Yes, boxes are still big in this house. My kids once took a particularly large box, decorated it, put blankets and pillows in, strung up Christmas lights (with help from us), and not only played in there but slept in it for a week.

  2. I don’t even try to write for children…talk about a tough audience, LOL. So I am ever in awe of those who are talented enough to engage our little ones who have the attention span of a fruit fly with severe ADD.

    This was a beautiful post and brought tears to my eyes. In a way I think it is sad how children are treated today. I believe they should be a part of the family, a contibuting part of the team. I feel too many parents give the idea that children are great so long as they stay out of the way. So they plant them in front of non-stop cartoons and movies and gadgets and games. They buy toys instead of giving time, and the children suffer emotionally.

    I know reading to my son is one way to be mindful that I am engaged in relationship. A writer’s mantra should always be to show not tell…even as parents. Don’t tell your kids you love them, SHOW them. Reading and books are a great way to do just that.

    Thanks for this beautiful post and I am so happy I found this blog.

    Kristen Lamb

    • Kristen – I’m so glad you stopped by. I’ve been reading and loving your blog for a while now. As a matter of fact, the comment you left here is what finally threw me over and made me decide to buy your social media for writers book. Your posts are always funny, but I was still unsure how that subject could be humorous. But when I read “…little ones who have the attention span of a fruit fly with severe ADD,” I realized you can make anything funny!

      You are so right about reading showing kids the way. They get preached and lectured to all day long, but reading is a way they can learn without being “told.”

      Thank you for such a thoughtful and touching comment.

  3. Wonderful recap of Bruce’s speech. I need to do Bruce’s exercise in depth, but here are my initial thoughts on why I write for kids:

    1) It’s my passion. I dream about. It’s the first thing I want to do when I have a few moments. I’m absolutely drawn towards books and the process of creating. Outside of family and nurturing friendships, there is nothing I enjoy more.

    2) Reading a story is a journey. If there is one thing that I would like to communicate to kids, it’s this: Life isn’t about getting places or accumulating stuff. It’s about the fun, the disappointment, and the joy that is happening right now. You know when you read a good book and you are sad it’s over (rather than happy the characters reached their destination). Well, life is like that. The meat is in the struggle and growth… And that part of the story doesn’t ever need to end.

    3) Through writing, I see the world from a child’s perspective again. This reminds me that the world is an amazing place full of possibilities. I want to share that joy with children and parents.

    • Hannah, I am right with you, especially on #2. Having stuff isn’t the same as experiencing life, and often the stuff gets in the way. “The fun, the disappointment, and the joy that is happening right now” is definitely it!

  4. What a great post! I’m going to have to do this exercise in depth too, but my very fist answer is that I write for children to engage their imaginations. I constantly marvel at the things that come out of children’s imaginations and if I can help foster that, I desperately want to try.

    • I know – isn’t it great that by fostering their imaginations we also reinvigorate our own? One of the serious side benefits of having children is being able to talk, think, act and play like a child again.

  5. Hi Julie,

    Loved your post, lots of great, though-provoking stuff. When at first I started writing, I didn’t have any kind of a good answer to this question, except maybe this: I wrote because I could (or I hoped that I could), and because I thought it could be fun. Today, I write because a story, an idea, or some characters are scratching on the walls of my mind, wanting to come out and run around and do crazy things. So I let them. 🙂

    Katia

  6. What a great post! Too often I think I’m writing for myself, and I need to back up and realize I’m writing for the reader.

  7. Julie, my children are grown now and how I miss those nurturing years. I do believe that being a children’s writer is one of the most beautiful callings a person can have.

    I have only just discovered your blog and have already been so inspired. Have always wanted to write seriously, but haven’t known where to start. So I just write. Letters, emails, in my scrapbooks, on my computer, and lately in my blog. The more I write, the more I want to write more.

    As a mom, not only did I love reading books with my kids, but also making up stories for them during their toddler and preschool years. At night in their beds, after prayers and goodnight kisses, they would give me three things: a person, a place and a thing and then I would weave a story for them. I never wrote any of our stories down, but sure wish I had. They were magical times which were infused with so much love and imagination.

    To take a story and capture it in a book in a way that all the emotion is released upon its opening is talent indeed.

    How wonderful that you are living this dream.

    • Lori,

      Thank you so much for stopping by the blog. I’m glad you’ve found some inspiration here. I love how you made up stories for your kids at bedtime. It’s funny because I have a hard time doing that on the spot, maybe because I feel self-conscious. I should try to do it more often though. As you say, these are magical times when they are young, have so much imagination and actually look to their parents for entertainment and inspiration.

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