Riding Around the Block

Writing Road Trip by Lisa Bullard | Riding Around the BlockMy mom was a huge wor­ri­er. But when I think back to my child­hood sum­mers, what stands out is not the safe­guards she imposed, but the aston­ish­ing free­dom we had. I remem­ber long seg­ments of time that belonged exclu­sive­ly to the under-ten crowd: our moms shared the vague under­stand­ing that we were “out­side,” but they had no clue exact­ly where in the big world of out­side we were at any giv­en moment. We might be in someone’s back­yard, under the watch­ful eye of one of those moms, but we were just as like­ly to be off on some grand adventure.

One of my favorite adven­tures was “rid­ing around the block,” although tech­ni­cal­ly it was much more than just a block. Each side of the square that my friends and I trav­eled had a favorite ele­ment. The first side was three blocks of homes, com­plete with oth­er kids we knew from the school bus. The sec­ond side’s best fea­ture was the pond where we caught tad­poles by the buck­et­full when they were in sea­son. The third side bor­dered a farmer’s fields, and we loved to play cas­tle high atop his hay­mows. The fourth side always required a sec­ond wind to start: the cor­ner was anchored by the haunt­ed house, and every­one knew you had to bike past that as fast as you pos­si­bly could. Once we dared slow down, we scanned the ditch with eagle eyes, always con­vinced we would once again find mys­te­ri­ous dry­ing bones as we had on a pre­vi­ous journey.

There are many rea­sons — some of them sad and scary — that kids today don’t all share those long hours of unsu­per­vised free­dom from adult gov­er­nance. But writ­ers know that this can make it tough to ramp up the very ele­ment that an excit­ing sto­ry requires: risk-tak­ing and the result­ing con­se­quences. Adults who write for chil­dren have learned to cre­ate clever ways to get the grown-ups out of the sto­ry (hence the aston­ish­ing num­ber of orphans that lit­ter the lit­er­ary land­scape). That way, kids can get them­selves into, and out of, the kind of inter­est­ing trou­ble that makes us want to keep read­ing. But young writ­ers, often being raised them­selves in an always-super­vised child­hood, some­times strug­gle to place their char­ac­ters at risk. Which means their sto­ries stag­nate while their char­ac­ters sit around stay­ing safe.

Safe­ty, I am here to tell you, is the bane of good sto­ry-writ­ing. If you notice this trend emerg­ing, give your young writ­ers per­mis­sion to intro­duce risk and dan­ger — phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, tan­gi­ble — into their sto­ries. Help them brain­storm ways to get rid of the character’s cell phone. Help them imag­ine how their char­ac­ter, while not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad kid, might still find him or her­self in the kind of predica­ment their par­ents wish they’d stay far away from. Encour­age them to push their char­ac­ter out of the back­yard, and out from under the watch­ful eyes of Mom, and set them loose on an adven­ture of their own.

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David LaRochelle
David LaRochelle
4 years ago

Safe­ty is the bane of good sto­ry-writ­ing” — How very true, Lisa, and what a good reminder for us authors of ANY age!

Lois T. Bartholomew
Lois T. Bartholomew
4 years ago

What a great arti­cle, Lisa. You are very right.