A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Walk the Walk
I’m currently working on a new children’s book—one commissioned by Wellspan Heath, an integrated health system that serves the communities of central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland. For the past fifteen years, they have run Get Outdoors (GO) York!—a summer-long physical activity initiative, conducted in partnership with York County Libraries, that encourages children and families to visit parks and trails in and around York County, PA. It is designed to promote reading and physical activity for children of all ages. In celebration of their 15th anniversary, I was invited to create a children’s book that would feature the parks, reserves, and forests of York County via narratives, poetry, stories, and hands-on activities.
To be successful, I knew I had to “walk the walk.”
I suppose it would have been quite easy to sit in front of my computer, access a couple of local websites, and put together an assembly of facts and figures that would define the various parks and outposts of the county. But, that was not my perception of the assignment. I had to give my young readers a sense of the spirit and energy of each designated spot; they needed to know that a naturalistic environment was more than an assembly of trails, a collage of playground equipment, or an occasional gathering of wildlife. Each of these places was a pause in the cacophony of everyday life—places devoid of cell phones, emails, text messages, apps, tweets, and all manner of electronic interruptions and intrusions that push and shove the real world to the fringes of our consciousness. Many kids are wrapped in an electronic cocoon—an envelope that isolates them from the natural world. What youngsters often need is to step out of their comfort zones and reconnect with things wondrously normal and contemplatively natural—to visit a truer ebb and flow of life.
To do that, I needed to do on-site research. I needed to get “up close and personal” with each distinctive ecosystem. I needed to personally walk the trails, commune with trees, pause beside tumbling streams, wander beside long fields of cornstalks, and observe the arc of migratory birds over the Susquehanna River. I needed to get close with nature so that my readers could do the same in their personal ventures around this vibrant landscape. My personal connections were a necessary framework and essential foundation for each chapter of the book, without which the manuscript would be an empty vessel—one lacking both personality and passion. You, too, can discover that spirit in a local park, garden, or hiking trail.
The same is no less true for works of fiction. When I crafted my fictional story The Tsunami Quilt: Grandfather’s Story, I wanted to give youngsters a personal feeling about the impact of tsunamis, not in a scientific way, but more in a personal sense. I wanted them to feel the impact of this natural disaster on families and neighbors. Again, I could have made my writing much easier by referencing any number of websites. But, I decided that, unless I physically visited the site of a disastrous tsunami (and its aftermath) I could not, in all good conscience, tell a story about the personal impact on a young boy’s relationship with his grandfather. So, I took a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii and Laupāhoehoe Point where, on April 1, 1946, a devastating tsunami destroyed a school and took the lives of 24 teachers and children. As I walked the same grounds that students and educators walked more than 75 years ago, I began to feel the spirit of the place—a transference of emotions that underscored the passion and peril I needed for this book. Truth be told, it was a walk unlike any other walk I have ever taken. I still have those goosebumps.
Success as a children’s author is more than a mastery of grammar, a command of dialogue, or the establishment of voice. It’s also about engagement . . . insights of a character, dynamics of place, and the intimacy of a scene. It is storytelling from the inside out. It is crawling inside the soul of your narrative and a way of building an impassioned bridge between ourselves as authors and the readers for whom we are writing. Without walking the walk, our words are empty and lifeless. They take up space on the page but seldom gain a space in the hearts and minds of our readers. Experience what you want your readers to experience and you will begin to craft stories that command attention, drive the narrative, and engage emotions.
By walking the walk, you’ll be able to talk the talk!
NOTE: The “Get Outdoors” book profiled above will be the fourth “community-based” children’s book I’ve written. Others include books for the York Revolution minor league baseball team, United Way of York, and the Northern Central Railway of York (an excursion train that runs along a historical rail line). Consider contacting your own local groups and organizations to see if they might be interested in a specially written children’s book for their members or as part of their outreach efforts.
|DEAR READERS: For the past four years, I have been deeply honored to write this column. I sincerely hope that these monthly musings have provided you with engaging ideas and insightful practices—aiding in your success as a children’s author. But, now it is time for me to “retire.” My decision is based on a few factors; but primarily on the realization that we grow as writers only when we consider a wide variety of viewpoints and embrace a plethora of dynamic possibilities. A fresh voice, new experiences, and a different way of thinking will help you achieve your own literary goals. That said, it is still my continuing wish that every reader experience a most passionate career and a most triumphant venture (and adventure) into the hearts and minds of children everywhere! I look forward to reading your creative productions! Bon voyage! Bon vivant! |
In Friendship and with All Best Wishes,
Tony is the author of more than 50 children’s books—many of which have won national writing awards (i.e., Outstanding Science Trade Book [Children’s Book Council], Isaac Walton Book of the Year, etc.). He has also authored the best-selling (and Spider-Man–approved) Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know From Story Creation to Getting Published (https://amzn.to/3CqgSYu).
Eastern PA SCBWI would like to thank Tony Fredericks for providing four years of writing advice, insights, and wisdom in his monthly column here on the EasternPennPoints blog. We are so grateful for his dedication to our region and our members over the years.