When I was a child in the eighties, there was almost nothing that made me happier than locking myself away in my bedroom or playroom, and playing with my dolls. There would usually be some sort of a storyline I would create in my mind, as I considered the following:
- Who were my main characters?
- Where did they live?
- What were they trying to do?
There was She-Ra (sister of He-Man, naturally), who would usually be going on some sort of a fantasy-based warrior’s quest involving physical stunts and battles.
Then there was Barbie, who allowed for more of a foray into contemporary realism. Definitely less suspenseful than the adventures of a warrior princess, but sometimes you just want to drive a Corvette and sit by the pool with your little sister, Skipper. Don’t get me wrong, there was always a lot of drama in Barbie’s world. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
If my best friend from across the street joined me, we would each sort of create our own story lines and play them off of each other, almost like improv, although I often found that I came up with the best ideas when I was alone.
As an adult, I am no longer ashamed to admit that I continued with this play even when mainstream culture would have considered me too old to do so. Sure, it involved sneaking into packed-away storage boxes and stealing away from two older sisters who enjoyed teasing me, but it was worth it. These were my storytelling tools. They were a wonderful escape for me into a world of creativity. And you know what? Sometimes I think I would still like to play with a Barbie doll once in a while.
Famed kidlit author/hero Judy Blume says that she spent hours of her childhood with imaginary friends that she would fully develop into characters. I did this, too. So many of us engaged in vivid pretend play as kids, and on a certain level, we still do- in the stories we write for today’s kids. We steal away, not with dolls or imaginary friends, but with laptops and scribbled pages in notebooks.
And if I may share another pearl of wisdom from the fabulous Ms. Blume, it is that being an effective kidlit author involves not only liking kids a whole lot and being very familiar with them, but actually still remaining one inside, in certain respects. In other words, we need to be able to channel our inner child and keep him or her alive enough that he or she can inspire our best work. Given that our old toys are probably long gone from their storage bins, and possibly even this material world, here are some thoughts I have on how we might do this.
Engage in Your Own Playtime: I almost put the word ‘playtime’ in double quotes, as if it weren’t a real thing for adults, but no. Nope, I’m not going to do that. Play is important for adults, too; particularly, for adults who engage in creative pursuits aimed at kids. Playtime is a serious investment in your professional development as a kidlit writer. Get out your paints, frolic in dirt, and do whatever brings you the same kind of bliss you felt when you played as a child.
It could be something kind of mundane and simple- for me, it’s trying out a fun dessert recipe, or turning on satellite radio when I’m alone in my car, grooving to the music, and letting my imagination run wild, as I contemplate song lyrics and make up storylines to them. While you are engaging in this creative play, let your mind wander. Forget your to-do list for the time being. Feel free.
Channel Vivid Memories from Childhood: We all have at least a couple of these. Have you ever really tried to recall them, through meditation or journal-writing, or some sort of private and quiet reflection? If you spend some time with them, I bet you can start to remember more and more, like how you used to feel, and what was important to you as a child and why. Certain things change through the decades for kids, like fashion and technology and what they like to play with, but how they feel about their loved ones and the world around them does not really. These timeless elements of your childhood memories could be literary gold for your stories.
Go Through Old Photo Albums and Diaries/Journals: If you have these somewhere, it’s well worth a look through them. Often, we remember things a certain way in our heads, and it can be interesting to see or read about how things actually were, without the haze of subsequent years clouding our vision. Maybe you were a lot less awkward than you remember feeling at the time. Or more awkward. In looking through my old diary, I was a little shocked at how seriously I took certain things that would not seem like a big deal to me as an adult. Also, how sure I seemed of things that were still so unfamiliar to me in the grand scheme of life. I will use these insights in narrating my young characters.
Spend Casual Time with Children and Observe Them Together: If you have kids of your own, or kids you spend time with regularly, you already do this on some level. You are familiar with how they speak, and how they behave. One part we could all be more mindful of as kidlit writers, is the listening and observation part. What kinds of things do they care about? How do they interact with one another? It’s hard to really know them, independent of you (and they are independent of you, even as children, don’t forget), unless you sort of hang back and quietly observe. Channel your inner fly on the wall the next time you are around kids playing together or having a conversation. And when the opportunity presents itself, do the complete opposite and join in on whatever they are doing, letting them take the lead. Experience it the way that they do. Be a child with them. They have a lot they can teach you.
I engage in almost all of these exercises from time to time, and am always glad I did, because I end up drawing from them when brainstorming children’s story ideas. I do not play with dolls anymore. If anyone reading this does, however, let me know and I’ll set something up for us. I’ll bring the Corvette and the pool set.
What are some ways you keep the creative child inside you alive? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!