Eighty grade 5 & 6 students filled the library of an Ontario school where I was the guest author a few years ago. I love visiting schools, in part because I was a teacher for many years so I feel like a prodigal son returning home. But I also love visiting schools because as an author of books for young people, students provide me with a healthy dose of reality. Students, like the ones at this Ontario school, are my target audience when I write. What they say, how they feel about my books, what questions they ask – all of these things matter.
After the session, one student lingered longer than most and the librarian asked if I might have a few words with him. Josh had read my book, Survivors, cover to cover, she explained. Why, he had even gone a step further. He had prepared a survival kit, a backpack filled with emergency supplies. Josh kept it under his bed at home just in case the house caught fire, or a tornado struck, or some other disaster like those portrayed in the book put his life in danger.
At first, I was concerned. Had my book provoked unnecessary fear and damaged Josh for life? But after a few words with Josh I breathed easier. He wasn’t traumatized or frightened, just ambitious. He’d figured out a way to process the information in a useful way that made sense to him. Kudos to Josh.
Besides relief, I felt something else at that moment. Satisfaction. Somehow the stories I had toiled so hard to get right in my office at home had transcended time and place. Across many miles, they had touched a young reader, fueled his imagination and sent him on a quest of his own.
I’ve reflected on that experience a number of times and wondered just what magical combination of ingredients makes such a strong connection between author and young reader possible. Probably there are dozens of factors, but for me one keeps rising to the surface. While writing for kids like Josh, I had somehow reached deep inside myself to find my own inner kid – that boy of long ago who had dozens of questions, who wondered in awe at new-found things, and who had tasted first-hand the fear, confusion and angst of growing up. I had tapped into that well, found my footing and when I wrote it was from that place, one kid connecting with another.
To connect with their readership, I think all successful writers of children’s material do this. They remember as vividly as yesterday what it was like to be a kid. Whatever their genres, they write from that place, invoking childhood emotions and experiences that are universal, mindful of the wonders and worries that drive all youngsters no matter where they live.