[Hey, there’s a BOOK GIVEAWAY at the end of this post!]
Empathy is the only thing that makes change real. —Lin-Manuel Miranda
I spent much of my time as a preschool teacher in a crouch, speaking eye-to-eye with toddlers. We talked about what they were doing, what they were trying to do, what they were feeling. We also pondered the thoughts and feelings of the other kids; I asked them to walk a while in their friends’ cute little tennis shoes.
[Aside: Growing up in Indiana, I called all athletic footwear “tennis shoes.” The preschoolers I taught in California and Arizona called them simply “shoes.” The kids in Mexico called them tenis, short for zapatos tenis—tennis shoes.]
While teaching preschool (this was 1991-1998), my love for kid’s books was rekindled. I had been writing for a long time by then, but had struggled to land on a form that I strongly connected to. Reading books to kids everyday led me back to the books I loved in my youth, which led me to the eureka moment in which I finally put together that
I love spending time with kids + I love writing + I love kid’s books = I should write for kids.
I mean, duh.
The first story I wrote was based on my experiences in Mexico (in 1993), where I’d adopted an electric dog. (Rather than explain, I’ll ask you to please read the book). When I returned to the U.S., I took positions at both a co-operative preschool (mornings) and the local public library (afternoons and weekends), where, of course, I led story times—more reading stories to kids. I wrote the rough draft in my limited free time, then used the computers in the library after hours to revise. When the book was eventually published, I proudly catalogued, processed, shelved, and checked it out to kids. I also recommended it wholeheartedly and incessantly.
It wasn’t until the book was published that I learned that schools and libraries routinely invited authors to visit, that they covered travel and lodging expenses, and, amazingly, that they paid authors to spend the day talking to their hundreds of kids. Had I chosen my dream job or what? I learned all this from my editor, after I’d received my first invitation to visit a school. She had to tell me what an honorarium was. I was, like, “You’re kidding, right?”
That was twenty years ago. I’ve published over twenty books in that time and have visited hundreds of schools and libraries, where I’ve had the immense good fortune to have met untold thousands of brilliant, creative, enthusiastic kids, preschoolers to eighth graders, many of whom had read my books! What could possibly top that? I just visited one yesterday and am still grinning. The day before, I Skyped third-graders squeezed into a school library in Berkeley, California. So, doubly smiley am I today.
One thing I discuss with kids is empathy, but through a different lens than I did in the preschool. Fiction writers continually walk around in their characters’ shoes—or, in my case, their paws. We must leap into every character, main or secondary, and embody them, whether they be wizard, spy, snake, or guinea pig. We need to know at what they are expert, terrible, and mediocre; what scares the bejeezus out of them; what brings out their best. We ask where they live and with whom. (We must walk in the tenis of each of those characters, too.) What important events—successes, setbacks, tragedies—have beset them? Who do they rely on, avoid, admire, and revile, and why? (And, again, who are these characters?) What private dreams do they nurture?
In my presentations, I begin by asking the kids to imagine a nonhuman character. Picking an animal makes the brainstorming more lively. Even with large audiences, I lead a twenty-minute workshop in which we create a story for this character based on answers to the sort of questions listed above. We discover from our investigation what the character most wants (the protagonist’s desire, not the solving of a “problem,” is the motor of all stories), determine why the character can’t get what it wants (the obstacles), then brainstorm strategies to achieve its goal, which becomes the plot. I record all of our ideas in words and drawings with marker and presentation pad—or whiteboard, Smart Board, Elmo, whatever the school provides. It’s a thrilling, often uproarious process that provides me with the elements necessary to improvise the story. (I’m a big advocate for planning.) Referring to their notes, I then tell the tale, stopping now and then to ask for help as I reach points when the character must make a choice (or when I get stuck).
These stories always conclusively and satisfyingly end because the heroes gets what they want (a happy ending), or discover they actually wanted something else (a surprise ending), give up (a sad ending), or die trying (a tragedy—an option I don’t employ, but do acknowledge). At “The End,” the kids invariably erupt in cheers. I give full credit to them, of course, as it was their brainstorming, creativity imagination, and engagement that set the stage for the story. They built it. I merely told it.
I point out how far we have come from a generic creature (a narwhal, chinchilla, blowfish…) to a living, breathing, idiosyncratic, unique hero, and that we accomplished this through empathy.
Here’s the planning we did for the story of Forest, the laid-back fox:
I still crouch when talking to kids. Generally, kids sit on library, cafeteria, or gymnasium floors during my presentations. I like to chat with them before I begin.
I find it much harder to get up now.
(Skyping is easier on my knees.)
Contact me via my website: patrickjennings.com.
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