Little Storytellers

As a little kid, my most prized possession was a hefty volume of Grimm’s illustrated fairy tales. I would find a quiet place away from my siblings—all nine of them—to immerse myself in worlds where the heroes always beat the villains. As I grew older, it wasn’t much of a leap to trade in fairy tales for tales of mystery and the macabre. On road trips at night, I would entertain my brothers and sisters with stories improvised from my own imagination. If I told the stories long enough for the youngest ones to fall asleep, I could sit in peace in the back of a quiet station wagon and watch the moon follow our car. 

Decades later, I entertain my young granddaughters in the same way. When the oldest was not quite three, to relieve her boredom on the long drive to my house, I made up a story about fairies that live in a hollow oak tree in my yard. Now, at six, my eldest granddaughter, Eleanor, is both collaborator and critic. If she doesn’t like the turn of a plot, she’ll redirect it. If I meander into too much backstory, she admonishes: “Just tell the story, Grandma!” 

She’s also a storyteller in her own right. At her request, we might spend a couple of hours working on a book of her creation. Page by page, Eleanor describes a scene and draws it, leaving space for me to scribe the words as she dictates them. Her first creation was about a girl who uses a magic wand from a friendly fairy to save her family from a terrible dragon. She called it “Eleanor Loves Apples.”

Her four-year-old sister, Virginia, is more of a poet. Here is her first poem, faithfully recorded by yours truly:

Hearts and Flowers

by Virginia

Hearts can’t bloom when they’re sad.

If hearts can bloom, there will be love.

If hearts can’t bloom, there will be no love.

You need love or the hearts will broke and the flowers will die.

And now them didn’t and there will be love.

Our mutual love of words and pictures and stories prompted me to write and publish a book for each of them: The Climbing Tree, for Eleanor, and Virginia Loves Dogs, for her sister. A third, Caroline and the Not-Mamma, for Caroline, age two, will come out later this year–by Caroline’s birthday in September.

I never planned to be a children’s book author. I used my imagination and creativity the way I hope my granddaughters will always use theirs, and it just happened. Who knows what might be next?

Attention Young Writers

You know who you are. You’re the kids with characters in your heads, inventing predicaments, imagining scenes. Maybe you think of yourself as a writer. Maybe you’re not that bold–yet.

Here’s an idea. Trying thinking of yourself as a storyteller. That’s what I do, and it relieves some of the pressure. I find if I focus more on telling a story and less on the writing-it-down part, the words come easier. I still write my stories on paper. I just write them the way I imagine telling my granddaughters, or a non-judgmental friend.

When I spoke to the seventh graders at Brambleton Middle School recently, I was asked a few times for my best writing advice. It’s this: just write. Tell your stories. Get them on paper without judging them. You can go back and edit and smooth over the grammar and the spelling. Try not to edit as you go–just go, GO, while the story tells itself to you.

That’s the whole idea behind National Novel Writing Month. Why not check out the Young Writers Program? It’s free and offers writing challenges year-round, but November is the month writers of all ages are encouraged to crank out a novel in 30 days.

Tempting, isn’t it?

Teachers: Check out the resources available to help you encourage the storytellers among you. Yours is a sacred calling!

The Kids Are Alright

I spent two days this past week with seventh graders at Brambleton Middle School in Ashburn, Virginia, and I came away exhausted and exhilarated. Their teachers are applying the “Five Cs”—Communication, Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Contribution—across the curriculum (how brilliant is that?) and had invited me to explain how they relate to my process for creating picture books. 

Over the course of the two days, I spoke with about 500 students in 7 assemblies. My goal was to encourage them to fire up their creativity and see themselves as storytellers. I took them behind the scenes and between the pages of my first two picture books and gave them a few simple tips to help them with their fiction writing assignments. They were engaged and curious. They had far more questions than I had time to respond, and those questions were intelligent and insightful. They offered observations about my books that were entirely new to me. I’m pretty sure I learned at least as much from them as they did from me.

When I first decided to put my stories on the page, I wasn’t thinking about visiting schools and libraries. Now I realize that spending time talking about stories with young people is the very best part. 

One seventh grader wanted to know what was next. Another asked if I had ever considered writing for older kids. (The answer is yes.) A handful of kids brought me torn slips of paper and asked for my autograph. But the most memorable of many memorable moments came from the boy who introduced himself after one of the sessions and explained that he was an artist. “I’d like to work with you,” he said. “Do you think I could illustrate one of your books?”

I’d better get busy writing.