Notes from Candice Ransom

Why I (Still) Write for Children, Part I

no outlet web

A little over a month ago, I was editing chapter seven of a chapter book I’d been working on, on and off, for five years.  I set my pen down.  The book was dead.  It had been on life support the last six months, but I could not pull it through the knothole.

This was a first for me.  To quit on a book before I’d finished the second draft.  I’d reluctantly let projects go after multiple drastic revisions, multiple submissions, and many restless nights.  But despite all the changes to the plot, the addition and subtraction of characters, the shift from third person to first person and back to third again, despite convincing myself this was the first in a four-book series that was important, the book was deader than a nit in a blizzard.

I didn’t care about my character.  The story was an uphill slog.  And if it was a slog for me, I couldn’t imagine any reader taking a shine to this book, much less an editor signing me up for a four-book series.  It was a difficult decision to make, but I put the project in the drawer with relief, not regret.

Then I had to figure out what to do next.

Over the years, people have asked me why I don’t write for adults.  Lately, I sense they are serious and not just wondering when I’ll be able to shed my training wheels and go for a real spin.  And honestly, when I stand in front of the cluttered children’s section of Barnes and Noble, I wonder the same thing myself.  Why am I still writing for children?

I can spout the usual answers: because I’ve been doing this for nearly 35 years.  Because I’ve wanted to do it since I was fifteen.  Because I don’t know how to do anything else.

But as my 63rd birthday looms, and the field of children’s books grows harder to stay alive in, maybe I need to rethink my chosen career.  Maybe there was a deeper reason why that chapter book croaked on me.  It’s a question I’ve been pondering for weeks.

Yesterday morning I walked outside with my husband, out into a chilly March start to a day that promised later warmth, out into the drumming of a downy woodpecker and high-crowned budding of the sweet gum, and I said, “I should be in my tree house.”  It was an automatic reaction that seeped out from under 53 years of scabbed over events, work, and the dailiness that comprises our grown-up lives.

At age ten, my tree house was where you’d find me every weekend morning until school let out, and then every morning all summer long.  I got up as the day unfurled and hurled myself into it.

Last night as I was drifting off to sleep, I climbed up into my tree house again, remembering how it was built in one day by my stepfather and my oldest cousin.  I was afraid of heights but I wanted a tree house more than anything.  My stepfather built the platform on posts against an oak tree.  A shingled roof slanted over the walls, three windows, and narrow doorway.  Best of all, he built a sturdy, shallow-stepped staircase with safety rails on both sides.

My stepfather carried up that staircase and through the kid-sized doorway my sister’s old vanity.  My mother cut up a pink shower curtain to hang at the windows.  I brought up comic books and my bird guide and binoculars.

My tree house became my base camp, the place where I began each day, figuring how to spend the hours as I pleased.  Annie Dillard experienced that freedom as well, and recounts her singular moment in An American Childhood:  “I had essentially been had been handed my own life . . . My days were my own to plan and fill.”

And so were mine.  I was alone much of the time, but seldom lonely.  I had library books to read and stories to write, birds to watch, the encyclopedia of the wide world to study.  I explored, learned, had small adventures.  When my cousins came, I took them with me.

Yesterday warmed to 64 degrees.  Kids in our cul-de-sac stayed outside all afternoon, bouncing balls, riding all manner of wheeled things up and down the court, yelling, claiming they were It, declaring out of bounds.  I’ve been watching them for years and notice a pattern.  Their play seems tethered to structure: vehicles, balls, rules.  It’s good they’re outside at all, but back yards go ignored in favor of pavement.

We live in a fairly rural county, yet our neighborhood kids are locked into the routines of suburban kids everywhere:  soccer, music lessons, church clubs, swim team.  Mothers tell me their driving schedules and I want to lie down in a dark room.  When, I wonder, do kids explore, learn things not taught in school or on the Internet, have small adventures?

Young Annie Dillard was given a rock collection, three grocery bags full.  An old man had collected the rocks over his lifetime, died, and the paper boy wound up with the collection, which he gave to Annie.  She cataloged and labeled the rocks until she “knew them by sight: that favorite dry red cinnabar, those Lake Erie ruby granites and flintstones, big chunks of pale oolite, dark wavy serpentine, gneiss, tourmaline, Apache tears, all of them.”

As she worked, she wondered about the old man:

Maybe he hadn’t died after all.  Maybe he’d simply escaped underground.  He cracked open Pittsburgh like a geode . . . He visited the underground corridors where spinel crystals twinned underfoot, and blue cubes of galena cut his hands, and carnelian nodules hung wet overhead among pale octahedrons of fluorite, among frost agates and moonstones, red jasper, blue lazulite, stubs of garnet, black chert.  Of course he hadn’t come back.  Who would?

My tree house is one reason I still write for children.  Through my books, I want kids to have a base camp, a place to launch small adventures.  I want them to be inspired to go outside, crack open their world, discover the treasures beneath their feet, and maybe—oh, how I hope—take back a few hours of their days.

There is time enough for schedules and computer monitors–years and years of it, in fact.  Go, I want to beg kids today, go now.  Before it’s too late.

18 thoughts on “Why I (Still) Write for Children, Part I”

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. Still wrestling over Part II–there *is* a second reason. Trying to find the words . . . which is what we do every single day, don’t we?

  1. It is because of writers like you that I was able to venture beyond the confines of my childhood circumstances, if only in my mind. Books along the line of the kinds you write? They fed my wide-eyed sense of wonderment, sparked within me a spirit of adventure that burns bright, even now.

    All that to say: Thank you for staying true to the storyteller who invites readers to spend luxurious hours in a shaded treehouse, who inspires them to grab a pair of binoculars and head for territories as yet unexplored. xoxo

    • You led a vagabond life and I stayed in one place, more or less, as a kid. My boundaries were limited to acres, but they encompassed woods, a creek, gardens, a meadow. Of course I longed for sidewalks, but I learned nothing from sidewalks. I found rabbit trails instead and was small enough to follow them through brambles.

      Like you, books made me brave, gave me ideas, showed me the way. There is nothing on a screen that can compare. Nothing.

  2. You made me want to “crack open the world.” I stopped what I was working on and went right out into the back yard. I was thrilled to discover that the rhubarb did not succumb to the winter and is showing a sprout of its distinctive color. Then around to the front of the house to discover that a pair of doves have nested in the planter attached to the porch railing. At least it is at the far end of the porch and not in the direct path to the front door. Mr. Dove was perched on one of the rocking chairs when I opened the front door just now. He solemnly looked at me and then checked to see that his lady-fair had not been disturbed — and kept on perching. So if I do not bother them, they are OK with humans using the front door to come and go.
    Thanks for prompting me to go outside and really look at what is right here — to delight in the things that make me happy and that I can share with the neighborhood children (and our own grands).

    • Everything seems dead as a doornail this time of year, but it really isn’t. Trees and plants only needed one sunny day with breezes from the southeast to wake up. Our yard is patched and striped with bits of green.

      Doves build the worst nests and in the worst places. It’s amazing there are ever any baby doves. But you’ll be able to watch the show as it unfolds, share it with neighbors and those lucky grandchildren who have you for a grandmother.

    • I can’t open one single page in either Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek or An American Childhood and not want to stop what I’m doing and read. Annie Dillard is an American treasure.

      I want to write more, too. It’s still a struggle and I’m my own worst enemy.

    • Thanks, Marilyn. You don’t know how many times I’ve dreamed about our group . . . those were the best times. We were all so close, so into our work . . . and every one of you helped raise me.

    • Lulu! How wonderful of you to stop by! I can’t quit. It’s not just part of who I am–it *is* who I am. Destiny handed to me at a very early age, just getting harder to fulfill.

      I miss the Guild, too, but the drive is simply horrible. No matter what they do to I-95, add toll lanes, whatever, it’s still a nightmare.

      Take care!

  3. I’ve been mulling over your blog post for several days. Your description of your childhood days and the adventure of discovering the treasures in your own backyard is truly a perfect day – not only for the child-sized version of me, but also for the grown-up lady version. Yesterday, I spent an hour in a garden playing with flowers and taking their pictures, and I felt like a kid again.

    Keep writing for children. They need your books now more than ever. And I’ll read them, too – simply because I need to keep the curiosity of childhood in my life. Thank you for telling stories that matter and always encouraging me!

    • I think most days you and I both should be in a tree house. We wouldn’t get a lick of work done, but so what?

      Our trees aren’t big enough, but *yours* are. Let’s ask our husbands to build us one!

  4. I have been reading your blog since I purchased your Iva Honeysuckle books for my oldest granddaughter. We read the first book together and had so many laughs. It was a return to my own childhood. Thanks for this post. I completely agree. Keep writing for children.

  5. I’m so glad you told me about these entries! I am smiling and feel so connected, because I’m relating to so many things in what you wrote about writing AND life.
    We moved to ten acres when I was 11. Dad always promised to build us a playhouse or treehouse…but never got around to it. I’ll be 52 soon and I’m still disappointed. I did, however, create our own imaginary “houses” in our woods, making an outline with plentiful chunks of Ozarks’ rocks and using our red wagon on its side, full of fallen branches, as our “fireplace.” Because we were one county over from where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her books, my younger sisters and brother and I WERE Laura and her family, somewhere faraway on a prairie, not in the sticky humidity and heat, battling ticks and chiggers. Our baby brother and sister rode the wagon down the hilly field, with me pulling and my next sister down pushing. Mom put us outside summer mornings, locked the door, and off we went, a paper grocery bag with our provisions–a jar of water, some Saltines, a partial loaf of Hillbilly Bread, and whatever else we could sneak out of the kitchen.
    I did enjoy one treehouse though–three boy cousins’ magical place, high up a long metal ladder, with a fancy railing, front porch, and one room with three windows. (Those were the cousins who always had EVERY new toy, EVERY new game, EVERY new everything, AND a concrete basketball court with two goals!) We often swapped weeks at each other’s houses during the summers, with the Pendergrasses coming to the Cardwells, or the Cardwells going to the Pendergrasses, sometimes both, two weeks in a row. We usually got along very well, but by the end of too-much-time-together, sometimes a Hatfield/McCoy fuss blew up. And when that happened, you ran for the treehouse, trying to get all your clan up the ladder in time to pull up the ladder and prevent the other clan from climbing up, too. Then it was a glaring stand-off. Those left on the ground would squint up and holler, “You ain’t got no food or water up there, ya know! Or a BATHROOM!” And those in the lofty treehouse would pretend they didn’t care and reigned over all the world anyway. And thought about how thirsty and hungry they felt–and how they really needed to pee.
    I spent a lot of my summers up a tree, trying to hide from my siblings, usually with both pockets full of buttermints and with a tall stack of magazines, comic books, and books. Now, those, those really WERE good ol’ days…
    Thanks for reminding me!

    • Lorri, Comic books! Buttermints! Cousins! We were separated at birth, I think. Hillbilly Bread I’m assuming is Wonder or something even softer and “pillier.” You know, make dough pills and throw them at each other.

      I loved your stories, your Ozark childhood (not a whole lot of difference between a hillbilly and a redneck) that mirrored mine. You have such strong memories, such a great sense of humor, so kid-centered. Girl! You’ve got ready-made material! And when you’ve written one or two, holler for me to come up in the treehouse and read them to me. I like the yellow pastel buttermints.


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