If you cannot find yourself on the page very early in life, you will go looking for yourself in all the wrong places.
When Richard Peck said that, I would have applauded had I not been typing as fast I could to get down his every meaty line.
In all his books, he said, he always has an older character."I always put old people in, just in case there are no old people in my readers's lives. Just in case they no longer have to write thank you notes to their grandparents. A book, like a school, should provide what is no longer available in life ."
Mr. Peck was speaking at the 2010 SCBWI Symposium in Bologna. He is now 76 and it is nine years since he won the Newbery Medal for A Year Down Yonder, a book that few publishers would embrace these days because not only is it of a very specific regional bent, its lead character is a big fat and old lady, plus there is not a single handsome bloodsucker in sight.
His theme had somewhat evolved from the announced topic "The Right Books Right Now" to what drives or should drive us children's authors to write for "a generation who knows no earlier century, who knows no time but now, and who recognizes no government but the peer group."
Says Mr. Peck: "We write for a generation we never were because ours is a higher calling: a deeper craft", trying to woo "a readership whose facebooks glow hot into the night long after their parents are fast asleep".
He listed what was required of us in breathtaking language:
- "We have crossed terrible minefields of our own making ... the opening mine of the opening line. Are we writing with invitational simplicity without a word to slow it down?" He cites as an example of an opening with "invitational simplicity" a line from EB White's Charlotte's Web: "Where is Papa going with that axe?"
- "Like no other authors we can doom ourselves before we start, fall at the first fence ... when the thickets of our dark woods see the adverbs coiling to strike. Boys don’t use adverbs. Boys live in an unqualified word." He quotes Mark Twain: "If you see an adverb, shoot it."
- "We have to write as the readers. We cannot write as ourselves ...We must write nearer to our readers and farther from ourselves than any other kind of writer.".
- "Character development is the beating heart of what we do."
- "Dialogue is best written standing up. It improves the pace ... I write with my feet. That way I can act out my scenes when I get to the kids. If you are unwilling to get up and act out any of your scenes, you will be reduced to writing for adults
- "The hard truth that a story must entertain first before it can do anything else ... and what entertains you and me doesn’t necessarily entertain the young."
- "A story for the young must move in a straight line with hope at the end."
- "The hook upon all our stories hang is the universal truth that actions have consequences. If actions have no consequences, plots fall apart. If actions have no consequences, it isn't a book ... it's a remedial programme. But being responsible for the consequences of your actions is the least interesting truth to the young ... and so we have to be canny and devious."
It was not so much a keynote as a call to arms
And our responsibility is great - because what we create on the page is like a magic mirror that helps our young reader see the human being they can become.
Researching Richard Peck on the internet, I was delighted to discover he had written an autobiography Anonymously Yours. In it, he posted the following, a kind of Reader's Creed:
I read because one life isn't enough, and in the page of a book I can be anybody;This is why we write for children.
I read because the words that build the story become mine, to build my life;
I read not for happy endings but for new beginnings; I'm just beginning myself, and I wouldn't mind a map;
I read because I have friends who don't, and young though they are, they're beginning to run out of material;
I read because every journey begins at the library, and it's time for me to start packing;
I read because one of these days I'm going to get out of this town, and I'm going to go everywhere and meet everybody, and I want to be ready.