A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Last December, our son, his wife, and their 17-month-old daughter (Amelia) journeyed from Colorado to visit us for about a week. Since they were limited in regards to the number of toys they could bring along, we decided to create some playthings that would keep Amelia engaged while she was with us.
We had just purchased a storage cabinet, which arrived in a large cardboard box. As we looked at the box, we both came to the same conclusion: “Let’s transform the box into a house.” So, with utility knife in hand, we cut out a small “door” on one side and a “window” in each of the two ends. We didn’t decorate it or add any frills to this cardboard dwelling.
The box became Amelia’s constant plaything the entire week she was with us. Dolls went in and out on a regular basis. A large stuffed Santa sat on the roof and “guarded” the house from all manner of nefarious creatures. Pop-Pop (me) stuck his head in the windows and through the open door, playing an endless series of “Peek-a-Boo” and other games.
We provided Amelia with a box of crayons and she “decorated” the house as only the imagination of a 17-month-old can do. There were scribbles along one wall, lines and circles over the roof, and an apparently incoherent (to adults) series of marks, doodles, and figures that adorned the interior walls.
During the entire visit, the cardboard house was a constant source of pleasure for Amelia. She never tired of the imaginative activities invented on the spot. She was able to crawl in and out of the house at will, becoming a character just like the stuffed bunnies and several cat toys that occasionally took up residence in and out of her cardboard creation. It was also a great place to take a nap!
She had simply created her own environment—a private universe inhabited by inanimate objects that took on imaginary personalities, did impossible tasks, and moved in creative ways. The fact that her grandfather was a coconspirator in these escapades only served to heighten the fun. In her mind, it was the best toy ever created. She never stopped giggling. She never stopped playing.
So, how’s your imagination?
It’s an interesting question—one I frequently ask myself as I’m in the middle of a new project or deep into the revision of a contracted book. Am I thinking like an adult (logical, pragmatic, rational), or have I allowed my imagination to take a flight of fancy or side trip down an imaginary route? Although my specialty is nonfiction, I am also aware that good nonfiction is also good storytelling. Have I built my facts around a compelling storyline, or have I succumbed to a dry encyclopedic entry that’s scientifically accurate but devoid of human interest? Am I telling or am I showing?
When I wrote Tall Tall Tree, a picture book about the majestic redwood trees of northern California, I wanted readers to become engaged in a story rather than be passive observers to a parade of lifeless facts. So, I wrapped up the information in a playful rhyme, a mathematical journey, and a game of “I Spy.” As one reviewer observed, “Its lyrical quality is engaging, its language rich with vivid vocabulary.” In short, it became just what I had hoped: an imaginative investigation of an intriguing ecosystem.
When it looks as though my literary ventures are stalled or becoming mired in linguistic “goo,” I go back to the basics—I watch kids. I observe them in the mall or at a local playground; I watch them at play at the shore or along a forest trail; or I volunteer at the local library so I can read stories and talk with them about their own imaginary adventures and make-believe worlds. This constant contact with kids ensures I don’t become “too adult” or “too grown-up” in my writing. It helps me preserve an imaginative outlook on the world and it stimulates me to move out of a mental comfort zone that often compresses my thinking and inhibits my creativity.
Watch kids at play and, no matter whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you will discover new approaches to your writing and new pathways to explore in your scenes, dialogue, plots, and points of view. Your writing will become authentic and imaginative simply because its foundation is built on the thinking of kids, rather than the logic of adults.
Okay, who’s ready for a game of “Peek-a-Boo?”
Tony is an award-winning writer of more than 50 children’s books, including the 2018 CBC/NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book Tall Tall Tree (https://amzn.to/2JCeMJZ). He is also the author of the e-book Writing Children’s Books: 701 Creative Prompts for Stories Kids Will Love (https://amzn.to/2FMITxt). [“Wow! There are story ideas here for every genre and writing style.” —Amazon 5-star review]