Shaping Voice and Tackling Heavy Themes in Children’s Stories

New Voices Award sealSummer is settling in and this month marks the halfway point of the submissions window for our New Voices Award, an annual writing contest for unpublished authors of color. If you’re an aspiring writer working to submit a children’s book manuscript, you’ve probably got the basic elements of your story (characters, setting, and plot) figured out already. You may even have most of the story written down. If so, kudos! But a story is more than words on a page. It’s the voice behind the words that drives the narrative and keeps the reader engaged.

Unsure of how to tackle this essential yet elusive story element? Fear not!

Last month we interviewed New Voices Award winner Sylvia Liu about her path to publication. In this next blog post, New Voices Award Winner Patricia Smith and New Voices Award Honor Hayan Charara share their experiences with shaping voice while tackling the difficult themes in their award-winning titles Janna and the Kings and The Three Lucys.

  1. What kind of writing did you do before entering the New Voices Award and how did that experience influence your story writing?

Patricia Smith: I’d been a professional journalist, but my primary mode of writing at the time was poetry. I think I became a poet after taking on some of my father’s storytelling skills. When he came up from Arkansas to Chicago during the Great Migration, he brought with him something I like to call “the tradition of the back porch.” Every day ended with a story from him that opened up new worlds, stretched the boundaries of my imagination and taught me that language was so much more than what I was learning, or not learning, in school.

But I don’t think my father’s stories inspired Janna as much as my father himself did. I was that little girl sitting in the barbershop, fascinated at all the magic found there, but it was my father–not my grandfather–who let me tag along with him every Saturday. I was an adult when my father died–and Janna was a way to explore that sense of loss, of the world not being the same. Also, although I’m a diehard sentimental, I never really knew my grandfather. So I wanted to explore that warmth that I imagined between a grandfather and grandchild.

Hayan Charara: I published my first poem when I was nineteen, so it’s been almost twenty-five years since I began writing poetry. Some of my poems tell stories, and all of them use a good deal of imagery to get across both meaning and feeling. Without storytelling and imagery, The Three Lucys simply couldn’t exist.

  1. What inspired you to write your story as a book for children?

    janna and the kings
    from Janna and the Kings

PS: I’m the dictionary definition of a daddy’s girl, so a few things were in play. I needed to express the singular and enduring type of love I felt for him. Although he was gone by the time the book was published, I was writing it for him–he died before he could see that I’d become a writer, which is something I promised him when I was very young. And I really wanted to capture that special time in a special place, the barbershop–a place that has been so pivotal, and so nurturing, in so many black communities.

HC: I first wrote about the events that take place in The Three Lucys a few years earlier in a poem originally titled, “Lucy”. I changed the poem’s title to “Animals,” and it appears in my new poetry book, Something Sinister. Generally speaking, I write poems, in part, to figure something out, either about myself, the people I know, or the world I live in. While I don’t always find an answer, I find that I have a better sense of these things than I did beforehand.

Despite the poem, I still had questions about the war, and most of them had to do with my little brother who lived through its events. Like Luli, he was six years old when the war broke out. I hadn’t yet thought very deeply about how he and other children might have experienced war and its aftermath.

I might not have tackled these questions with a children’s book if not for Naomi Shihab Nye, the poet and children’s book author. For years, Naomi had been urging me to write a children’s book, and for almost all of that time I didn’t feel ready to do so. Then, at a café in San Antonio, she handed me an announcement for the New Voices Award and said, simply, “You need to write a story for children.” This time, I felt ready.

  1. Did the voice for your story come naturally, or did you experiment with different points of view while writing?

 PS: Because I envisioned myself as Janna, and because my father’s voice is so clear in my head, the writing came easily. Actually, I had held on to the New Voices call for some time, moving the notice around and around on my desk. I work best when there’s an anvil swinging over my head, so I didn’t begin writing until I had no choice–a day or so before the deadline. I didn’t panic, because I knew the story so well.

HC: Before The Three Lucys, I had no practice writing children’s stories, and it had been years since I last read one. I went into writing the story very clumsily, not really knowing what I was doing or how it would turn out. Depending on who is asked, that’s either the most natural or unnatural way to write a story.

Though I wrote the story in one sitting, it took several revisions before I started to think of it as finished. All along, the voice remained relatively unchanged; the same goes for the points of view. What did change through each revision were the details and descriptions, the sort that would bring to life the experiences of the people in the story, as well as their deeper emotions.

For example, none of the early drafts brought out in a powerful and memorable way the moment that Luli realizes he will never again see one of the three Lucys. At best, the scene was nothing more than a description. I hadn’t gotten at how Luli felt.

I took months to arrive at an image that expressed the kind of sadness that comes with the loss of a loved one. Luli tells us, “My heart feels as heavy as an apple falling from a tree.” Sometimes, we get lucky and an image like that comes quick. Sometimes, it takes a long time, but I still feel lucky when it happens.

  1. Both Janna and the Kings and The Three Lucys discuss heavy themes. What challenges did you face when creating the right tone/ voice for your main character as they experience tragedy and cope with its effects? How did you overcome these challenges?
the three lucys
from The Three Lucys

PS: It didn’t feel like a challenge. I feel like I’m forever processing the loss of my father, and a lot of what I hoped the world will be without him is much like what the world turns out to be for Janna. I wanted to acknowledge his loss, but to have my life be full of him. I was writing from the perspective of a child, but the feelings were very much my own–an adult woman still suffering the loss of her best friend.

HC: The hardest part of writing this story was separating myself from it. I had all sorts of feelings, thoughts, and responses to the war itself, to war in general, and to the loss of a loved one. My mother died when I was a young man, for example, and that experience altered me forever.

I knew that I would be coming at this story with a lot of ideas and emotions already in place. On the one hand, this is a good thing because it meant that I was prepared to write the story. On the other hand, it was clear to me that I had to come at this story from a perspective very different from my own. After all, the story is about a child’s experience, not an adult’s, a fact I had to remind myself about often and be reminded about just as often by those who read drafts of the story.

  1. Finally, what advice would you give to new writers interested in tackling heavy themes in their stories for children?

PS: We constantly underestimate children. The world they live in is sporting sharper edges; and each day they adjust, their perspectives deepen, and they grow thicker skin. Children suspect these heavy stories even if we’re not ready to tell them. I think the key is remembering to revel in the myriad possibilities of language, to never downplay the role of imagination, and to always, always look for an unexpected entry point into the story. I don’t mean to sugarcoat–just write the story in a way you’ve never heard it. Your readers will be so enthralled by the way the story unfolds that its content becomes something more than just “that difficult topic.”

HC: When I wrote The Three Lucys, my wife and I didn’t have any children, only cats and dogs. You don’t have to explain anything to a cat or dog—you can, of course, and I think it’s a good thing if we talk to our animals. With cats and dogs, no matter what you say, they always listen. There’s practically no pressure at all to get it right. It’s really hard to screw up.

We’re parents now, to a four-year-old and a five-year-old. And I’ve realized that I am talking to them all the time about heavy themes, mainly because they bring them up. Every so often, one of them will ask me something like, “Will you die before me?” or “Can I live with you forever?” Or, even harder to answer, “What is the universe?”

When my boys ask me these kinds of questions, I feel like every one of them is an opportunity for me to say exactly the wrong thing. Obviously, these are also opportunities for growth and knowledge (for them as much as for me). When I talk to them about anything, not just heavy stuff, I try to do so honestly and in a way that doesn’t terrify or confuse them. I’ve also realized that, no matter how much I try to protect them, difficult and at times ugly realities will still make their way into their lives. This happens to all children, all the time. When it comes to helping children understand and get through difficulties, parents and teachers are usually the first-responders. And writers are often right there with them. We can be, at least. As a parent, I know that I often rely on writers—on children’s books—to help me out, not only with the heavy stuff, but the simple stuff, too. So I hope that more writers will tackle the big issues. It’ll make all our lives a little better.

Janna and the Kings by Patricia Smith is available now!

janna and the kings

The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara will be available September 2016!

the three lucys

For more details about the New Voices Award please visit the New Voices Award page.

 

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