One surprise was that I had saved them in the first place. Did I really think I’d want someday to reread my World Book-sourced report on the Warsaw Pact? But the bigger surprise was a draft of one of my college application essays — printed, in pencil, on the green notebook paper I favored because I thought it was distinctive. The prompt for the essay was, “If you were to write a book, what would its subject be?” (Ugh. Who comes up with questions like this, knowing they’ll have to read the responses?) My answer was that I wanted to write and illustrate picture books for children.
I have no memory of this. I wish I had saved the essay a second time, the better to interrogate it, but I tossed it along with the rest of the box. Reverse-engineering my thought processes, I’m guessing that in saying I wanted to be a children’s author I was trying to corral my primary ambitions at the time — to be a cartoonist and write for National Lampoon or “Saturday Night Live” — and tame them into something less likely to set off alarms at the admissions office.
On the other hand, maybe I was sincere? My 11th-grade English paper on “A Passage to India,” also inexplicably preserved, had a questionnaire from the teacher attached. He wanted to know what we had learned about ourselves in writing the paper. (Ugh, again.) My answer: “I learned that I would rather have read ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’” So I clearly had kid lit on the brain.
It was simultaneously disorienting and confirming to learn that what I thought was a newish passion had deeper currents. But I’m glad my ambition to write for kids lay low for a while before resurfacing. If I’d tried my hand at it in my 20s or 30s or even 40s, I’m pretty sure the results would have been mediocre and forced. Like a lot of young and aspiring writers, I tended to focus more on effect than on whatever I was trying to say. I was writing for show, striving to dazzle or provoke or amuse. Not that I don’t still want my work to do those things, but writing well for children demands emotional honesty. It takes an ability to burrow into your own feelings — at least that’s how it works for me.
I might get the kernel of an idea for a book from something I see or hear: a toddler’s anticipatory glee as he nears a playground; a kindergartner asking her grandmother if, just once, they can sit in the back of the crosstown bus; my son’s reason for naming his cat Balloon. Or maybe a phrase pops into my head that feels like the beginning of something — an opening line or a refrain. But alongside the craft necessary to turn that glimpse or fragment into a satisfying whole (i.e., rewriting and rewriting and rewriting), there’s rumination. What would this story or idea mean to a child? What would it have meant to me? What did the emotions in the story — happiness, sadness, fear, wonder, boredom, frustration, need, love — feel like at 3 or 4 or 5? What am I getting at, really?