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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: Bruce Coville, Children's Books, Rocky Mountain Chapter SCBWI, SCBWI, Writing