What writing for children is all about

At the recent Northern Ohio SCBWI publication party, I shared a story that to me typifies what writing for children is all about. At the risk of being redundant (but as a way to take advantage of the fact that I don’t have to write another article right now!), here’s my story.

In the village of Chalatenango, El Salvador, Andrea lives with the local village priest. Fr. Rafael came into her life when she was near death as a toddler and he was asked to give her a final blessing before she died. He insisted on taking her to the local hospital where she spent a month fighting for her life. Besides being raised on coffee instead of milk, Andrea was being abused by her father, so instead of returning home, her mother asked Father Rafael to take her.

Andrea is now a relatively healthy five-year-old, but a handful to her caregivers. In spite of Father Rafael’s unending patience, she is regularly disciplined for her bad behavior by those around her. Oftentimes the people taking care of her don’t have children and haven’t a clue how children can behave and often scold her because her impulsive behavior puts her in harm’s way.

My school (St. Patrick in Kent) has adopted Father Rafael’s former parish in Chalatenango and sends money on a monthly basis to pay for several students’ education. One first grade class has adopted a book project, and when students order books from their monthly book vendor, they are encouraged to donate money to buy books in Spanish for the children of their sister parish, El Dulce Nombre de Jesus (Sweet Name of Jesus).

The first time Andrea saw a book, she had no idea what to do with it, and used it to fan herself. She does, however, know that visitors often bring candy, so is always begging for “dulce.” Over the last couple years whenever she visits, my mentor, friend, and colleague in the school library (Jean Kreyche) has tried to educate Andrea about the joys of reading, mostly to no avail. Jean decided that books would be a much better addition to Andrea’s diet than candy. Until recently, Andrea has no patience for looking at pictures, and even less to sitting still and listening to words. Until…

David Shannon’s books (No, David; David Gets in Trouble; and David Goes to School) were introduced. Andrea delighted in the stories and went into absolute fits of laughter at the pictures. Obviously, she could relate to the admonitions that David constantly receives from the adults in his life. Not only did Andrea enjoy having the stories read to her, she now has memorized them and runs around shouting lines from the books, such as “Esperate, David!” (“Wait, David”) and “No toques, David!” (“Don’t touch, David!”).

In my mind, if this isn’t the highpoint of what writing and illustrating for children is all about, nothing is. So keep on following your dreams and some day, you might touch the life of a child, whether that child is at your local school, in another state, or 1800 miles away in a tiny village in El Salvador. Write on!