Any writer trying to tackle the art of composing a children’s story will agree—it’s tough work. Whether writing a 500-word picture book or a 75,000-word novel, writers face a juggling act of theme (without being didactic), character (without being overly cutesy), story (with the perfect pace), and more all in effort to create that sweet balance of delight, entertainment, meaning, and connection. But what makes a story good? In
Kimberly Reynolds, author of Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction, says, “Because children’s literature is one of the earliest ways in which the young encounter stories, it plays a powerful role in shaping how we think about and understand the world.” Reynolds’ statement echoes Kate DiCamillo. In essence, they are both saying that books play a powerful role that might affect the way children understand and think about race, religion, ableism, neurodiversity, gender identity and more. No wonder DiCamillo calls it a “sacred” task.
The next step in my mission to understand heart took me to Senior Editor Melissa Manlove from Chronicle Books. I knew Melissa would be the perfect person to talk to, because she made me work to uncover the heart of The Elephants Come Home (Chronicle Books, 2021). Back in 2012, I approached Melissa with a true story about a man named Lawrence Anthony who rescued a herd of seven elephants in Zululand, South Africa--the elephants had broken out of every other wildlife sanctuary they'd lived at and had thus frightened many townfolk with their destruction. Now they had to be relocated again, otherwise they would be shot! Melissa and I were both captivated by the many details of this story, but something was missing—that nebulous “something” was the heart. It sat in the outskirts of my writing, but the heart was too buried to actually feel it. I had to work, to dig, to revise until I was able to identify the true piece of me that I was bringing to the story (for me, it was growing up as a military brat and being made to move from home to home, like the elephants). Once I identified the heart I felt when I thought about this story, I knew I couldn’t shove it front and center because then the story would feel forced. Melissa says heart can’t be in the reader’s face. It needs to be like a treasure chest the reader works to uncover.
Actually, she says it more eloquently. Melissa says, “The writers I admire most tend to be ones that, as they draft, are following a feeling, a hunch, a question. They’re feeling out what seems right and what the story seems to want to be. And THEN from that, later, in the revision process, they figure out what that part of us that lives on story but doesn’t have words of its own to speak was trying to say. And when you let the story come first, and let it show you by feel where the heart is, then the heart is truly buried in it, like buried treasure, and your story becomes a map for those who will follow you.”
Senior Editor Maria Barbo from HarperCollins says, “Authenticity is key for emotional resonance. That thing you do in private that you think nobody else does—someone does it. A writer or artist has to make themselves vulnerable in that way—to share the secret, raw parts of themselves because relatability stems, in part, from specificity.” She adds a reminder, “The reader’s heart isn’t going to be in it if yours isn’t.” Maria is the editor for Bubbles...Up! a love poem to swimming, written by Jacqueline Davies illustrated by Sonia Sánchez. Each reader might find a different pulse point as they read, but without a doubt this story has heart.💙
At the end of Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery speech, she said that as a child, she sat with books in her tree-house and could, “Feel the stories I read pushing against the walls of my heart.” For her, those stories traveled beyond the boundaries of mere entertainment and had a lasting pulse. Again, DiCamillo says those, “…working on stories, bookmaking, and art are given the sacred task of making hearts larger through story.” Writers can only do this if they dig deep and give of themselves so authentically that a book develops a pulse—a story that not only entertains but also has a placeholder for the child to insert themselves and their emotions. Children deserve stories that have heart.