True Story

Posted January 7th, 2018 by Candice

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 keynoter’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.

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.

Then 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.

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22 Responses to “True Story”

  1. Christine says:

    Pocket mirrors-YESSS. And double yes!! Love this!

  2. Judy Schachner says:

    Beautifully written Candice – you have touched this readers heart.

  3. Sheilah Egan says:

    Candice,
    As always, you speak to the heart of the matter. Reading was an escape for me as a child. As a librarian, I read many books that I would have loved as a child. I discovered many others that would have just disillusioned me and crushed the joy and hope I found in books. Thanks for speaking about this. The old saw: The right book at the right time. Is still very important

    • Candice says:

      I too have discovered books that I ignored as a child and have since kicked myself–I would have LOVED “Miracles on Maple Hill,” for instance. But I wasn’t ready for “sad” books until I was in puberty, then I wanted to cry sometimes so I read “Little Women” and Paul Gallico’s cat books. I still hunt for the right book at the right time: right now I want a book about a woman who has been sick far too long and who has too many book projects and a dirty house.

  4. Candice, I admire your generosity in sharing your own stories and wonderful insights about children and books. This isn’t directly related to children’s books but it reminds me of the 2017 Christmas special of the PBS series “Call the Midwife.” (I think it’s one of the best TV series ever and I watch it for free online since I don’t get TV.) One of the subplots involves a woman who is asked to reconcile with her mother after her horribly abusive father dies. The nuns hunt for her and find she has filled her home with adopted and biological children so that no child will be treated as she was. You have written a wonderful variety of books for children in all kinds of situations to enjoy. There is nothing better than books and plays and movies and TV shows with both humor and heart, and that describes your books. And now I want to read that book by Brenda Seabrooke, too.

    • Candice says:

      First, I adore “Call the Midwife,” but wait for it to come out on DVD (we don’t have TV either). So I can’t wait to see the latest season with this show in it. Second, thanks so much for your kind words about my work. High praise, coming from you. Third, I loved your Christmas card and the photo of your family on your mom’s birthday. Everyone wearing blue! Track down Brenda Seabrooke’s “Judy Scuppernong.” It’s a marvel.

  5. I’m teaching a new fantasy course this semester and am nervous, but this post gave me some ideas about the need to read to escape. Thanks for making me think.

    • Candice says:

      Caroline: *You’re* nervous! You’ve taught fantasy writers and English forever and are wonderful at it. I’m teaching (online!) a class on contemporary picture books. Already I see picture books that are maybe a little too truthful, but will let my students know about them. On my nightstand right now, the new Elizabeth Berg, the new Michael Connelly, and, best of all, a new book called “Literary Wonderlands.”

  6. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Those books we never published must be important to becoming who we are and finding our best subjects, I believe. So many of us writers come to writing because it saved us as children, and then sometimes because we’re a bit damaged — I know that’s true for me. But I’m not sure there’s much correlation between who we are and what we choose to write about, or certainly not as easy match. Congratulations on becoming who you are today!

    • Candice says:

      Law, I have tons of books that will never see the light of day, but I felt that story should be out there and kept trying and trying. It’s been a huge relief just to let it go. I don’t know if I’ll ever write as bravely as some do (you!), but maybe what I do is enough. Thanks for stopping by, Miss Jeannine!

  7. Ashley Wolff says:

    Books are windows and mirrors. Yours are beautifully both. <3

  8. Michelle says:

    Thanks, Candice. Much food for thought. Gosh, I go ’round and ’round with these ideas. What am I doing or supposed to be doing as a writer? I tend not to worry but rather to write as a listener to the story, trusting my own reader’s ear. What appears must feel true to the page, to the characters, to the story as a whole. You help me understand that we write and read what we need. And perhaps we can trust ourselves more than we often do. Thank you, again!

    • Candice says:

      Michelle, my next Bookology Magazine essay (which this post is originally) is the subject of what you worry about, what are you supposed to be doing as a writer. I worry, too, even after 36 years of writing children’s books. Maybe especially after all those years.

      I’m not writing the books that I’m meant to–I’ve gone off my path. I’m taking *your* advice and listening to myself and the story. Thank you!

      P.S.: My Bookology column, “The Big Green Pocketbook” comes out the first week of the month. I don’t cross-post that essay to my blog until the next piece comes out.

      • Michelle says:

        I will check that out! Thank you. I’m eager to see where these thoughts take you as a writer. The best is yet to come! 🙂

  9. Ruth says:

    I am all for small truths. Wonderful, insightful post, Candice.

  10. Melissa G says:

    This is a wonderful read.
    Yes, the best stories are honest and kids have an instinct for this… I was going to say more on the subject, but realised that it was mirroring what you’ve written here. I concur.
    You know, in many ways, an honest writer is much like a great actor. To produce truth that resonates they need to reach into themselves. Everyone has a mental room or two that they keep locked. But storytellers do what others cannot, and they enter those rooms.

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