Several years ago, I was asked to give a speech that addressed the question, “Why do you write stories for children?” At first it seemed like asking me why I breathed air—I’d never even asked it of myself because the answer seemed so obvious—but it turned out to be an enlightening question. I dove down through the surface reasons—Because writing for kids is so much fun and so interesting; Because once I tried it, I couldn’t not do it; Because kids are such a wonderful audience—and finally got to the core: I write to correct some kind of injustice, social or environmental. I write because something has gotten me mad, and I need to fix it—at least fictionally. Injustice isn’t just the original motivator, either. A book is a long slog for me—a year on average—and in order to face that blank screen or those messy drafts for 365 days, I’d better be pretty worked up about something.
Most of the time, I hope the issues firing the work are invisible. It’s always such a dilemma: People want to read about things that matter, but nobody wants to read (or write!) a preachy book. The way I solve it is to have a character with believable supporting backstory care about something passionately, then challenge and threaten her cause and record honestly what happens. For example, the plot of the latest Clementine book revolves around her becoming a vegetarian—I wrote it after becoming interested in animal welfare.
Sometimes, though, the injustice issue is the book. Sparrow Girl is a case like that. Just by accident, I happened to learn about Mao Tse-tung’s war on sparrows: In 1958 he (absurdly!) blamed sparrows for China’s food shortage and ordered every able-bodied citizen to go out over a course of three days and nights and kill them all. The directive included children—party representatives went into schools and issued firecrackers to kids, gave them the days off, and told them to go out and make noise—to basically kills birds by keeping them so scared they died of heart attacks. The plan worked, but was an ecological nightmare: without the sparrows, locusts and other insects grew to plague proportions and decimated Chinas’s crops for years, contributing to the greatest famine the world has recorded.
I literally couldn’t rest after learning this. Children, being ordered to kill animals!!! I flew out to CA to interview people who had been young in China during that time. One man told me that by the 2nd day, the sky was raining birds. On the plane home, I heard a character stand up and say heroically, “No. The sky was crying birds.” And that was that—I was writing a book about it. When the book was finished, I obviously hadn’t done a single thing to change what had happened, but the act of writing it down in a narrative form had corrected something for me, and brought me peace.
Now this is something I talk about when I visit schools. Kids know that wrong stuff happens in the world, and they assume there’s nothing they, as kids, can do about it. I tell them writing it down in a narrative form the rest of the tribe can relate to is both powerful and empowering.
Thanks for letting me blow off some steam!
Sara Pennypacker writes the uber-popular Clementine series and other children’s novels and picture books. Her work has won numerous awards, including a Golden Kite Award, a Christopher’s Medal and many children’s choice state awards. Visit her at www.sarapennypacker.com.