What is it that drives someone to write fiction for children? Untrained for anything even vaguely literary or educational, but with a burning urge to place books in the hands of children. Spending lonely hours late at night staring at a shimmering screen. Facing hordes of schoolchildren herded into a library, only there because their other option is maths. Are you famous? No. Are you rich? Hardly. What do you write about? Children just like you. Where do you get your inspiration? My what? Oh, that. Again, from kids just like you. But why? Listen, kid, ask questions that can be answered, OK? I don't mind questions that are hard to answer, but I really don't like those that have no logical answer at all.
So what drives us? Is it the buzz of seeing our words in print? Maybe a little. Is it the esteem? Occasionally. Is it an obsession?
I am a nurse, working in pediatrics. This sometimes helps with character ideas, but beyond that nursing offers little to occupy my creative mind. It is a job I do rather to much in my opinion, regularly neglecting my family to squeeze in the hours required to complete my current writing project. But I still tell people that nursing is my second job - a 16-hours-a-week second job. And I'm serious. That's how I prioritise my writing. But why? Is it really that important? I don't much like nursing, but I accepted a long time ago that I'll be doing it for some time. That accepted, why not use the PC for surfing the net and playing games, and leave the endless rewrites and the savage edits to some other sucker?
Because like I said, it's an obsession, a compulsion. Because I have a very long memory. Because I remember what it was like to read a great book as a child, to feel emotion as if someone had forged barrel hoops around my chest. Because I remember the bedroom doorway darkened by a parent: Come on, son, this isn't getting you dressed for school. The book will still be there later. Not quite the point. Maybe school can wait.
I was a lucky child. My parents were missionaries, and I grew up in places most kids have only seen on tea-towels and postcards - places like Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Places with beaches, rivers, jungles and bamboo rafts. Places with no TV. My cousin Shannon and I read voraciously, then we'd be off, camping, fishing and emulating our literary heroes, even those whose imperialist toff would be unlikely to survive the sweep of an editor's pen these days. Robinson Crusoe? Sure, done that. Swiss Family Robinson? That too. Swallows and Amazons? Which one in particular? No, I don't mean which book - I mean which character? Tom Sawyer? Know him? I've been him, mate, and Shannon was Huck.
Perhaps it was that promise of yet another long sunny day with little else to do but role-play that made the evenings spent lying across the chenille with a book in hand so special. That subconscious casting of oneself as the main character, with a production meeting pencilled in for the following morning. I like this guy - maybe I'll be him tomorrow.
Then came the next day, and if the plan came together - well! The spell truly works. The magic is real. Books are enchanted after all.
It's a feeling which once felt never really goes away. But for some it grows stronger. Like the actor who hankers to get behind the camera, the book-absorbed kid longs to write. Twist the story his own way. Change the unsatisfactory ending to one that suits. Take control, hopefully elicit the same responses in some other child you'll never meet, make them want to be one of your characters.
There are books that attempt to tap into this children's desire to guide the stories, but they are almost invariably dreadful, and I don't allude categorically to the fact that they are usually horror. There is good horror for children, but most of it does not fall into the "Choose your own ending" category. No, my chief criticism of most of these types of books is that they handle their characters' emotions poorly. They label the feelings of the characters. They use words like fear, frightened, happy, relieved and terrified. They tell the reader the names of the emotions being described, assuming that every child has a palpable understanding of such simple emotions as fear and joy. On the surface this is a reasonable assumption, until one asks, is the fear of a stampeding herd of enraged wildebeest the same as the fear of being late for the school bus? Of missing the toilet? Of being in a car driven wildly by a drunk? Of facing the other cricket team's best and fastest bowler? Is the joy of winning a footrace or a soccer match the same as seeing your father for the first time in three months? Or conquering that fast bowler by hitting him for the winning runs in the final?
I first realised that there was more to writing well than giving names to emotions when I first read C.S. Lewis's classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. You might recall that when the children hear the name of Aslan for the very first time they each feel rather differently. Peter feels brave and adventurous, whilst Edmond feels mysterious horror. Label emotions, granted. But in the case of the girls the story is rather different. Susan feels as though a beautiful smell or a lovely strain of music has drifted by her. But with Lucy comes a true gem, a marvellous piece of storytelling genius. Lucy felt the way you do when you wake up and realise that it is the first day of the holidays, or the first day of summer. And in that one deceptively simple simile, every reader immediately identifies with Lucy. We've all felt it, we've all been there, we are all now Lucy for that one moment. And we see Lucy's character with greater understanding, since we are given such a clear view into the wide-eyed optimism brought to her by the very mention of Aslan's name. And furthermore, from then on Aslan's name carries a particular reverence for the reader, an awe unlikely to have been so strongly felt by the reader without such a clear window into Lucy's perception.
My point is that writing such as this is infectious, just as a fine singer makes us all feel that we too can find such beauty in our own voices. Read such a line with an understanding for why it makes you feel so strongly for the character, and you may never be the same. I wasn't. I knew from that moment that I wanted to pass on the good feelings that books brought to me as a child. I wanted to make readers late for school. I wanted them to turn the pages of my work and say, as I did, I truly understand this character for I know exactly how they feel. I am closer to feeling what they feel. I am closer to becoming Lucy.