Not long ago, I visited a number of schools in Winnipeg as one of the authors involved in the school program side of THIN AIR, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. I love visiting schools, in part because I had been a teacher for so long and it feels like I am a prodigal son returning home. But I also love visiting schools because students provide me with a healthy dose of reality. Students 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.
For THIN AIR, I had received an itinerary in advance, but on the first afternoon of my 3-day involvement, there was a slight hitch. Instead of the grade 1 & 2 classes listed on my itinerary, two grade 6 classes piled into the school library instead.
One of the teachers pulled me aside to explain. “I’ve been reading Coop the Great to my class. We haven’t finished, but the kids are so excited. When we heard you were coming, we made a deal with the grade 1 & 2 teachers. We’re here instead. I hope you don’t mind.”
Mind? Of course, I didn’t, not at all. To have readers so excited about something I’ve written is the best of all compliments. For the next hour, the students asked many questions. Most were about the characters and the story. Why is Coop so sour? Why is Lucinda so mean? What happened to Zach to make him so angry? Other questions probed into the choices I had made as a writer. Why did you name the dog Coop? Why a dachshund and not another breed? Did you ever have a dog like Coop?
The hour passed quickly. The students had other questions, but we ran out of time. I drove home, a little stunned and still high on the experience. Why did this story resonate with these kids? Why did they identify so closely with Coop and the other characters? As a writer, what ingredients had I whipped together to make this possible?
Probably there are dozens of factors, but for me one stands out. Even though my main character was Coop, a lowly, older dog struggling to find his purpose, kids saw reflections of themselves in his story. They knew what it was like to be bullied like Coop, to struggle and sometimes fail, and to be riddled with doubt, insecurities and larger-than-life questions that didn’t seem to have answers.
When I wrote Coop the Great, It was from that kid place. I think all successful writers of youth material do this. They remember as vividly as yesterday what it was like to be a kid. They remember the fears, confusion and angst of growing up. Whatever their genres, they write from that place. They draw on childhood emotions and experiences that are universal and touch all kids no matter when or where they live.