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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

True Story

Recent­ly I attend­ed a writer’s con­fer­ence main­ly to hear one speak­er. His award-win­ning books remind me that the very best writ­ing is found in children’s lit­er­a­ture. When he deliv­ered the keynote, I jot­ted down bits of his sparkling wis­dom.

At one point he said that we live in a bro­ken world, but one that’s also filled with beau­ty. My pen slowed. Some­thing about those words both­ered me. The crux of his speech was that as writ­ers for chil­dren, we are tasked to be hon­est and not with­hold the truth.

After the applause pat­tered away, the air in the ball­room seemed charged. Every­one was eager to march, unfurl­ing the ban­ner of truth for young read­ers! If we had been giv­en paper, we would have start­ed bril­liant, authen­tic nov­els on the spot.

The keynote’s mes­sage car­ried over into break-out ses­sions. Pan­elists admit­ted to crav­ing the truth when they were kids, things par­ents wouldn’t tell them. Par­tic­i­pants agreed. We should show kids the world as it real­ly is! The impli­ca­tion being that chil­dren lead­ing “nor­mal” lives should be aware of harsh­er real­i­ties and devel­op empa­thy. Kids liv­ing out­side the pale would find them­selves, maybe learn how to cope with their sit­u­a­tions.

I stopped tak­ing notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a bro­ken world. By age four, I’d expe­ri­enced scores of harsh­er real­i­ties. At sev­en, I learned the hard­est truth of all: that par­ents aren’t required to want or love their chil­dren. I spent most of my child­hood field­ing one real-world chal­lenge after the oth­er. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alco­holism, home­less­ness, and domes­tic vio­lence.

Christ­mas Day when I was 11 with my sis­ter and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

I read to escape, delv­ing into sto­ries where the character’s biggest chal­lenge was find­ing grandmother’s hid­den jew­els, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek nor­mal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane fam­i­lies weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Hen­ry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tum­bled from her space­ship, lived a nor­mal life with her fam­i­ly on Asra, climb­ing trees on that far­away plan­et like I did on Earth.

In a fam­i­ly of non-read­ers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read con­stant­ly, but decid­ed to be a writer at an ear­ly age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried trea­sure, not things I had to keep qui­et about; books where kids felt pro­tect­ed enough to embark on adven­tures.

My moth­er and step­fa­ther regard­ed me with odd respect, as if unsure what plan­et this kid had come from. So long as “sto­ry-writ­ing” didn’t inter­fere with school­work (it did), my moth­er excused me from chores. Only once did she declare read­ing mate­r­i­al inap­pro­pri­ate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Sto­ry mag­a­zine and was deep into sto­ry about an abused boy when my moth­er caught me. She thought I was learn­ing about sex. I was out­raged by the injus­tice: pun­ished for read­ing about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.

Judy ScuppernongThen I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fic­tion was light and humor­ous. Yet some brave writ­ers tack­led seri­ous sub­jects. My col­league Bren­da Seabrooke wrote a slen­der, ele­gant verse nov­el called Judy Scup­per­nong. This com­ing-of-age sto­ry touch­es on fam­i­ly secrets and alco­holism. The for­mat was per­fect for nav­i­gat­ing dif­fi­cult sub­jects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More fol­lowed, until I’d told my own sto­ry. My agent sub­mit­ted my book Nobody’s Child. One edi­tor asked me to rewrite it as a YA nov­el. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some peo­ple said that by telling my sto­ry, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I nev­er will.

The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I want­ed to know why. But by then every­one involved was gone, tak­ing their rea­sons with them. If I were to fic­tion­al­ize my sto­ry to help anoth­er child in the same sit­u­a­tion, I couldn’t make the end­ing turn out any bet­ter.

In the fan­tasies and mys­ter­ies and books about ani­mals I read as a kid, I fig­ured out I’d prob­a­bly be okay. When I looked up from what­ev­er library book I was read­ing, or what­ev­er sto­ry I was writ­ing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was bro­ken. There were woods and gar­dens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, peo­ple who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I nev­er expect­ed to hold the great mir­ror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a lit­tle pock­et mir­ror …one that reflects small blem­ish­es, and some great beau­ties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writ­ers will flash the great mir­ror of truth in bold­er works than mine. I’m con­tent to shine my lit­tle pock­et mir­ror at small truths, no big­ger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.

7 Responses to True Story

  1. Melanie December 8, 2017 at 8:35 am #

    As usu­al, love­ly and impor­tant words here in Big Green Pock­et­book. Thank you.

    • candice December 8, 2017 at 3:22 pm #

      Thanks, Melanie. As usu­al, high praise com­ing from you!

  2. jenbryantauthor December 8, 2017 at 9:30 am #

    I’m so glad I took the time to read this post–thanks, Can­dace, for writ­ing it. I’ve admired your books for a long time! I also made a delight­ful dis­cov­ery here: I found Bren­da Seabrooke’s JUDY SCUPPERNONG at a tiny book shop on the island of Bermu­da in the sum­mer of 1997. It was the first novel/ novel­la in verse that I’d ever read and I believe it plant­ed the seed of pos­si­bil­i­ty for my own writ­ing in that form sev­er­al years lat­er. I haven’t thought about that book for quite some time and now I’m going to try and dig out my copy.

    • candice December 8, 2017 at 3:26 pm #

      Jen, I’m such a fan! I teach your books in my non­fic­tion writ­ing class and can’t wait to read your lat­est. I believe Brenda’s book was *the* first verse nov­el for young peo­ple. She also wrote a sequel, Under the Pear Tree (I think). I re-read Brenda’s book at least once a year.

  3. Cynthia December 8, 2017 at 10:18 am #

    I couldn’t agree more, Can­dace. And what I espe­cial­ly liked is that “escap­ing” doesn’t mean read­ing only humor, nor read­ing only high fan­ta­sy — your arti­cle not only reminds us of the breadth of lan­guage and sto­ry, but the neces­si­ty of rec­og­niz­ing the diver­si­ty of read­ers’ needs and expe­ri­ences. And now I’m going to look for JUDY SCUPPERNONG! I thought I’d read every verse nov­el writ­ten.

    • candice December 8, 2017 at 3:28 pm #

      Lots of kids escape into nonfiction–I did that, too. Books took me to places and they still do. Do search for Judy Scuppernong–it was prob­a­bly the first verse nov­el for kids. It’s so ele­gant and lyri­cal, most like­ly a mod­el for many writ­ing in that for­mat. Thanks for com­ment­ing!

  4. constancevanhoven December 9, 2017 at 9:01 pm #

    The small truths in your sto­ries glit­ter like an eagle’s eye! Big­ger than a starling’s! Kids need and deserve many per­spec­tives in the books they read.

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