“A priest, a rabbi, and a children’s book writer walk into a bar…”
Last Saturday, about a hundred children’s writers and illustrators walked into the Richmond Public Library to hear author Louise Hawes give an inspiring and informative talk about our craft. Leaving her introductory joke open-ended, she went on to thoroughly deconstruct the common belief that writing for kids is insignificant. Too often it’s thought to be “easy, breezy, and—the most insidious and dangerous stereotype of all—less important.” With an engaging mix of poise and irony, she made the whole notion seem absurd. And yes, dangerous.
How so? Emotions and the constant flow of facts run high from childhood to adolescence. As children’s book authors, we’re making impressions on the most impressionable, most thoughtful people on the planet. Our work involves creating characters who can extend their hands (“gently,” encouraged Louise) to our readers and show them the way, show them how to help themselves—out of torment, through struggles, confusion, the issues that can damage for life. Our work can give them a shortcut to compassion, to wisdom, to seeing what’s essential in being human.
If we miss that, they lose, we lose.
She cautioned us, however, that young readers want to read, not for lessons, but for joy. Tell your story—don’t teach it.
Then, under her direction, we took a closer, personal look: “If your adult self could go back in time to speak to your child self, what age would you choose? Six … twelve … seventeen? The age that comes to mind is likely the age you should be writing for.” We each wrote a letter from our adult self to the age that we had chosen. It was a heart-opening exercise for some—revisiting our vulnerability in youth—and a few tears fell. It was further proof how critical it is to reach out to those who are at a critical time in their lives.
As to the delusion it’s easy and breezy, she explained how a picture book packs a punch in a very short amount of space. How that, like poetry, every word counts. It may take seven minutes to write, or it it may take seven years.
Included in the event were breakout groups for the categories of PB, MG, YA, and NF, with Virginia authors Ellen Braaf, Ginjer Clarke, Troy Howell, Erica Kirov, Lana Krumwiede, Meg Medina, Anne Marie Pace, Brian Rock, and A. B. Westrick. Gigi Amateau, also scheduled to be a facilitator, was not able to come.
…so, taking one look at the priest, the rabbi, and the children’s book writer, the bartender says, “Is this some kind of a joke?” Look again. We know at least one of them who isn’t joking.
If you’re serious about writing or illustrating for children, consider becoming a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), who sponsored this event. The benefits are many.
Louise Hawes is a founding faculty member of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and an author of over fifteen books for children, teens, and adults. (I’m currently reading her adult short story collection, Anteaters Don’t Dream, and you know you’re in for an amazing read when the first line begins, “I was on fire when I met Harry Too Tall…”)