Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 5, 2010

Anything Can Happen

For the end of the semester, my children’s literature students choose between writing a paper or a creative project, usually a picture book manuscript or chapter of a novel. If they choose the second, which most find more difficult and time consuming, I ask them to write a bit about the process in a short paper about their inspiration, the stops and starts, what they’d change if they had time, how they’d like to see their effort produced, and what they learned.

Peter began a picture book after reading about the last animal at a Berlin zoo destroyed in WW II. He was intrigued, but some grimaces told him he might reconsider, and he shifted the focus to a zoo keeper wearing a star on his jacket. Then he decided that this, too, probably was not material for pre-schoolers. He wrote about some internet jump starts and stops studying names, and searching for new ideas, then experimented with language. He found he liked interior and exterior rhymes, and found a way to the more conventional plot of a zoo story in which a lonely elephant finds a friend. The colors are bright and the words sing.

May began her novel with a description of a girl displaced after her parents’ divorce. She wrote great, but perhaps too lengthy, descriptions of the prairies the girl missed in the sometimes claustrophobic mountains. May drew inspiration from a semester reading about Native Americans on the plains, and the sanctuaries in Bridge to Terabithia and Secret Garden. And her trees bowed slightly to her love of Tolkien.

In the chapter’s final draft, discussion of the divorce had dwindled to maybe a sentence and we felt much more in the character’s point of view, experiencing things as she did. Landscape was still important, but we came to know it in a more measured way, building up carefully to the girl climbing a tree that goes up and up and up, rather the opposite, May noted, to Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole.

There were other works that took long strides from the first drafts. We liked Esther’s picture book about evolution, filled with apt metaphors for mutation, though she said she struggled re her audience since “evolution is mostly about sex and death,” but she wanted very young biologists to get a start. Harold wanted to write about how his African-American fraternity could turn a life around, but we questioned the audience for a picture book rather dryly stating a fraternity’s history and message. He ended up writing the first chapter of a novel about a somewhat rebellious teen with attitude, and of course we were all happier to hear about trouble than getting it fixed.

But my point here is how an idea is just a seed, and once we commit to it, it can take us for a ride. After projects are assigned, some students stop in my office to hash out ideas. I send them out fairly quickly, telling them to come back with something on paper. Even if it’s not great. Even if it’s a mess. No one can really see where they might go when their idea is still in the air, and no one can critique in a way that might suggest a clearing up of an original vision. A pencil or pen has some kind of power of its own, and it can guide anyone to a trail or shape.

Telling yourself — good idea! – is a smart way to begin, even if you’re exaggerating the goodness. The idea may not be perfectly great, but once committed to paper, anything can happen.



  1. Brilliant tip – something that I’ve found to be true as well. All the pussyfooting around before starting accomplishes nothing (even though I often forget and spend lots of time in just such an activity). It’s pen and paper (or fingers and keyboard) that gets things done!

  2. Hi, this is Andrew Fulmer (from the fall 09 children’s/YA lit course). I just wanted to say I think the picture book about evolution sounds awesome!
    (and that the assignment itself is a really fun one)

  3. I might not go so far as to say thinking may accomplish nothing; I think a few people are able to think things out in their very excellent brains. But I know I need to get my hands involved.

  4. Andrew! Thanks for writing. I miss a class without you there to add your connections to a wide array of television and mythology.
    And while some people wondered if this picture book could work, I think everyone was persuaded, and most of us learned quite a bit about evolution. Esther’s descriptions of what she left out were pretty amusing, too.

  5. Such a good point! All the planning in the world might not meaning anything once you actually start writing. Your class sounds fantastic, by the way. I’m sure the students get a lot out of it.

  6. You are sweet to comment. Are you going to the nescbwi conference this month? I’ll be there on Sunday and would love to say hi.

  7. I’m on the conference waiting list for Saturday so I’m hoping I’ll get to attend, but I won’t be there on Sunday. I’m sorry we won’t be able to meet!

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