Sunday, May 8, 2011

FOUR BOOKS THAT SHAPED MY WRITING John Claude Bemis

There are many books that had a huge impact on me as a reader, but I want to share today some books that shaped my writing. When I began teaching elementary school in the mid-1990s, I wasn’t aspiring to be an author. I was drawn to working with young people and was exciting to teach those books I loved from my childhood. But I quickly discovered that some of the best children’s novels ever written were coming out during those years I was starting as a teacher.

I’ve always been drawn to the imaginative, entertaining side of children’s books, but The Giver, Holes, The Golden Compass, and Harry Potter dramatically changed my thinking about how thoughtful, complex, and powerful children’s literature could be. This discovery set in motion a journey that eventually led me to write my first novel, the fantasy-steampunk adventure The Nine Pound Hammer.

Over the years, I’ve come back often to these four books and reflected on important lessons they had for my writing. Let’s start with Lois Lowry’s The Giver, since that book was really the one that made me want to be a writer. I was blown away when I first encountered this story about young Jonas tasked with taking on all the pain for his “perfect” community. There is a powerful message here about the importance of pain and suffering in transforming us into happy, whole human beings. Lowry taught me that young people need books that don’t provide easy answers or condescending sentimentality. Tell a story that can change how readers understand our often complicated existence.

Holes by Louis Sacher was a book I discovered at the same time as The Giver. It’s incredibly funny and entertaining, but has a depth to it—both thematically and in its narrative structure—that taught me that smart, literary novels and exciting, plot-driven novels are not mutually exclusive. When writing for young people, we must strive to balance the two.

In my heart of hearts, I’m a total fantasy adventure geek. But I’ve grown tired of seeing the same fantasy tropes regurgitated over and over again. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass flabbergasted me when I first read it. I couldn’t believe a children’s book author could be so bold! Pullman’s won plenty of enemies with his attacks (in his books and in the media) on the church. While I don’t necessarily share his views, I’ve never let it get in the way of appreciating what a visionary world he created in His Dark Materials.

Armored bears, the oracle-like alethiometer, daemons—Pullman has come up with some of the most original ideas of any author I’ve ever encountered. Pullman showed me that one of the keys to generating wildly creative ideas is to pair ideas together in ways we don’t normally expect (“lateral pairing” as I like to call it in my workshops). His daemons are talking animal companions (something that has a deep-seated appeal for us all), but they are also a physical manifestation of our souls. Having our souls represented as animals is a brilliant concept. Lateral pairing is also what created Charlotte (a spider who writes messages in her web) and Hogwarts (a boarding school for magic) and The Graveyard Book (ghosts raising a boy). I’ve learned that coming up with these wildly inventive pairings can be key to having a wildly inventive novel.

When I read the first Harry Potter book in hardback the year it came out, I wasn’t immediately blown away by its originality. But over the course of the series, I - like so many other readers-was drawn deeply in to Rowling’s world. I’ve often pondered what makes this series so appealing. What I’ve come to feel is that readers don’t really care about Harry stopping Voldemort. The reason we care about Harry’s plight is that we love him as a character and in turn, we love what he loves: his friends and Hogwarts.

This is where Rowlings mastery lies. She uses these sprawling novels to build our longing to be at Hogwarts with these eccentric teachers and students. In the end, we care about Harry stopping Voldemort because, if the dark lord wins, Hogwarts and all Harry’s friends will be lost. That’s why we care! That’s why we read! The lesson for writers is that readers don’t care about dark lords or the end of the world. They care about characters. And that means we need rich, fully-realized characters (and settings) that tug at readers’ hearts.

As writers, one of the single most important things we can do is return to those books that made us want to be writers. There are lessons to be learned in those stories. Every time I revisit Camp Green Lake, Jordan College, the Annex behind the House of the Old, or Hogwarts, I discover new lessons to bring back to my practice as a children’s book writer.

1 comment:

  1. Great 4. The Giver is brilliant and who doesn't love Harry Potter. I've got Milo and Wimpy Kid sitting next to me as I write.

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