For almost a decade, I’ve considered myself a children’s author who writes funny books about serious topics. While the stories I’ve published feature silly magical creatures, over-the-top embarrassing situations, and plenty of goofy puns, they also touch on more emotional elements such as bullying, chronic illness, and divorce. I’ve become used to thinking of humor as my “in” into tougher stories, a way to make the subject matter more accessible to myself—and to readers.
However, when I set out to write my newest novel, The Wonder of Wildflowers, which deals with the complex issue of immigration, funny just wasn’t cutting it. No matter how many times I tried to infuse humor into a story inspired by my own experiences as a young immigrant acclimating to a new, seemingly magical world, it just fell flat. I was ready to abandon the project and move on.
Then one day, I had an epiphany. What if my character wasn’t navigating a new world that only seemed magical to her because of where she’d come from? What if this new home really was magical? Perhaps it was the only country in the world to have access to magic. Once I knew that, the rest of the story fell into place fairly quickly. It turned out that magic was my “in” this time.
Now, whenever I approach a new project, I consider what my strongest “in” will be. Perhaps it will, once again, be humor or magic. Or maybe it will be a certain relationship that I’m curious to explore or a specific type of setting that I’m excited to depict. Knowing your “story in” can help you decide what to emphasize in your narrative, and it can also motivate you to keep going if you get stuck. And, ultimately, it can help keep you—and your readers—engaged in the story you’re telling.
Anna Staniszewski is the author of over a dozen books for young readers, including the novels The Dirt Diary and Secondhand Wishes, as well as the picture books Dogosaurus Rex and Power Down, Little Robot, and the Once Upon a Fairy Tale early chapter book series. She was a Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the PEN New England Discovery award, and she currently teaches in the MFA Writing for Children Program at Simmons University. Visit her at http://www.annastan.com.