"But almost all of the best children’s books do this.....
Even the most straightforward tales say far more than they seem to mean on the surface. Little Women, The Secret Garden, Huckleberry Finn --- how much more there is in them than we realize at a first reading. They partake of the universal language, and this is why we turn to them again and again when we are children, and still again when we have grown up.”
Madeleine L’Engle, upon accepting the Newbery Award in 1963
Madeleine L’Engle, upon accepting the Newbery Award in 1963
Are there special books from your childhood?
Have you read them again with your children?
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series were some of my favorites. Family dynamics. Time travel. School pressures. The state of the world. The power of love to heal. Reading them with our daughter, I enjoy the fantasy all over again and we explore our shared experiences with the characters.
“Oh dear, it is so difficult to explain things to you, small one. And I know now that it is not just because you are a child. What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know.” [Aunt Beast from A Wrinkle in Time]
As a 20-something, I skeptically dug into the Harry Potter series and then became enamored like millions of others. Reading them with our daughter more than a decade later, they become more magical.
“You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him. How else could you produce that particular Patronus? Prongs rode again last night…You know, Harry, in a way, you did see your father last night…You found him inside yourself.” [Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban]
Alright, I’m a sap. But this is good stuff for kids and parents to read and internalize. Good stories give us glimpses into our shared humanity, our vulnerability, our individuality, and our ability to make our own choices that will impact our own real-life stories.
Not long after we moved to New Jersey, a friend gifted our daughter the book Library Lion. We fell in love with the story: “One day, a lion came to the library. He walked right past the circulation desk and up into the stacks.”
While the librarians and children are at first befuddled and reasonably nervous, they soon include the lion in reading time, and the lion pitches in with dusting shelves and other tasks. He becomes especially close to the head librarian, Miss Merriweather. The lion is reminded that he cannot roar, cannot run, and must follow library rules or else be asked to leave. At a pivotal point in the story, the lion breaks a rule and roars to come to the aid of Miss Merriweather. I won’t spoil it. But the story ends with, “Sometimes there was a good reason to break the rules. Even in the library.”
Not long after reading Library Lion, our friend Stephanie invited me to a book release party for Evil Librarian, a young adult book authored by a childhood friend of hers, Michelle Knudsen. I took a moment to google the author and found that this Michelle was also the author of Library Lion, as well as many other books. Stephanie threw a fantastic release party, and guests had the opportunity to meet Michelle and have their books autographed. We quickly became fans of some of Michelle Knudsen’s other books for young readers, Argus and Marilyn’s Monster.
When I decided to share experiences and resources related to parenting through this Blog, Michelle Knudsen came to mind. Her children’s stories beautifully balance sweet and sad and liberating moments. When I read her books, I get a little “verklempt,” as the SNL Coffee Talk ladies would say. And for me, that feeling in the throat signifies something special, a universal truth.
I asked Michelle some questions about her writing process and how she captures these childlike feelings and experiences so well. Here is what she graciously shared with me:
1. Do you carry a certain, consistent 'universal' intention with you as you write? Or, do you start with a character in mind or particular experience as a child and the rest unfolds? Curious where/how the ideas originate....
I don't start out my books with any specific intention regarding themes or particular childhood experiences ... usually I begin with a character and/or situation that I find personally intriguing or compelling and then see where the story takes me. After the first draft or so, I can usually find at least hints of deeper themes or emotional threads with the surface story, and then I try to tease those out during revisions in order to make the story more meaningful. Sometimes I end up refocusing the story on a different event or emotional experience than what I started out with. It's often a long process of writing and revising, first on my own and then in response to comments from my editor. But even though I don't go in thinking about specific childhood experiences or themes that I think are important, I know those things will come to the surface as I'm writing. For a story to feel special to me, to make me want to keep working on it, there has to be an emotional center that feels valuable.
2. There are characters like Mr. Mc Bee (Library Lion) and Marilyn's brother (Marilyn’s Monster) who talk about rules, who are rigid, stern and even critical. In Argus, Sally's teacher is less critical and perhaps more like a lot of adults who want to maintain a certain calm or avoid trauma, and she regularly says, "Don't be difficult." Can you say some more about these characters and social norms? Do you think kids run up against people and systems like these a lot?
I do think kids run up a lot against rules and ideas that limit what they can and can't do (or at least what they are supposed to and not supposed to do), and I remember how frustrating that can be -- especially when the reasons behind a rule aren't easy to understand. (And sometimes there is no reason -- sometimes grownups just say no, and they have all the power, which can be really challenging for children to deal with.) Obviously there are times when rules are very important, but there are also times when people or groups seem to accept certain ideas as set in stone when they don't necessarily have to be. I like exploring the boundaries between which rules should truly be followed and which can be bent or even broken with very positive results.
JA Note: In Marilyn’s Monster, monsters find and pair off with children. “It was the latest thing.” But the way it worked was that the monster found the child. In Marilyn’s case, no monster found her, so after some disappointment, self-doubt, anger, jealousy, and taunts from her brother, she decides to go looking for her monster. Turns out her monster got stuck in a tree and was relieved to be rescued.
3. In Marilyn's Monster, Marilyn thinks, "there were a lot of different ways that things could work." This is really powerful for parents and kids. Part of the reason I felt compelled to write a Blog was a frustration with all of the expert talk out there and hearing parents feel pressured to do x or y a certain way because someone else identified their children as x or y. Are your messages for parents too?
I hope that readers of all ages can find things to feel/think about in my stories. I don't really think in terms of messages when I'm writing, even though of course there are often messages to be found in a story after it's written. I think any story that feels important and meaningful to a reader must have some essential aspect that the reader can relate to, and ideally something that stays with the reader after the book is back on the shelf. If my stories can raise questions or suggest a different way of looking at or thinking about things, for children or adults, that feels like a great success to me.
JA Note: Argus is a book that illustrates unconditional love. And the story seems particularly relevant in terms of bridging the “typical” world with the “special needs” world. Sally is in elementary school and her class incubates chicken eggs. While Sally’s classmates hatch little chicks, Sally hatches a dragon. This proves challenging in many respects.
4. When Argus runs off and is lost, Sally considers that life might be easier without him, but she realizes she misses him, loves him, and she accepts and appreciates his uniqueness. I think parents feel this frustration sometimes as well: finding that parenting is different or harder than anticipated, that their children aren't like them or like other kids, that their kids’ needs are demanding, and parents wrestle with this. I'd love your thoughts on the acceptance that Sally exemplifies.
I know I tend to come back to ideas about friendship and acceptance (of self and others) in many of my stories, and that's probably because those things are really important to me personally as I'm sure they are for many people. All of us -- especially children, but grownups too -- have moments where we feel we don't belong, where we feel uncomfortable about our differences either because of our own feelings/fears/perceptions or because of how others treat us. At first, Sally can only focus on the difficulties of Argus being so different -- it takes losing him to make her realize that her frustration with the challenges of dealing with Argus didn't stop her from also loving him at the same time.
When I was writing the story, I had a really hard time figuring out what it was really about. Early drafts had Argus doing something to save the other chicks from danger or otherwise "prove" his value, and I kept rewriting because honestly I almost always hate those kinds of stories. I think of them as Rudolph stories -- no one, not even Santa, accepts Rudolph until they need him, and then once he proves his worth, he's welcomed into the group. I wanted Sally to realize Argus's worth without him having to do something to prove it. I finally figured out that the story wasn't about Argus changing Sally's mind ... it was about Sally coming to realize what she knew all along. Argus was worth loving for who he was without him doing anything to "earn" her affection.
I appreciate the way Michelle Knudsen describes the vulnerability of being a child, how her characters recognize and appreciate being different in the face of social norms, and also how her characters challenge social norms in respectful ways. And how the characters, as vulnerable as they may seem initially, are strong, resilient, and find personal peace.
Such books remind us of what it was to be little. They remind us of how we liked to be parented. And perhaps they prompt us to consider how we parent our unique children. They remind us to pay attention to our children’s internal worlds and consider how we impact those worlds.
To learn more about Michelle Knudsen and her books: http://www.michelleknudsen.com/