Last night at Secret Garden Bookshop in Seattle, Patrick Jennings one of my favorite kids’ authors gave a reading from his newest book Guinea Dog. Guinea Dog is a middle grade book for 8-12 year olds and it’s my kind of book. It’s the story of a boy who desperately wants a dog. But his dad says oh,no. Dogs bark and whine. They gnaw. They bark. They scratch, beg, and drool. So his mom offers a “think-outside-the-box suggestion” and brings home a guinea pig. But this guinea pig thinks she’s a dog. She barks. She bites. You see where I’m going with this…..
I first heard Patrick speak at a SCBWI conference a few years ago, and he seriously challenged his audience that day by asking some uncomfortable questions, including whether we as would-be writers were writing stories that kids today desperately need to hear. I liked him so much I recommended him to come to one of our residencies at the Whidbey Writers Workshop, and he was a big hit, even given that he needed to please poets, non-fiction writers and others who write for grown-ups.
Here’s what he told us: Kids don’t have a lot of control. From the moment they first can talk, they’re ordered to listen. They live in a dangerous world. So if we’ve been blessed with the ability and desire to write for them, let’s write them stories that they can relate to and empower them at the same time. How might we do that? Stop worrying about selling your books. Stop trying to figure out what is selling so that you can write that kind of book. And listen to them. They’re pleading with us to listen.
With a kid audience, Patrick is a natural storyteller. He can get them involved within one minute of talking to them, even before he’s given them any clue of what his story is about. He tells them that a lot of the stories he writes are about beasts (werewolves, snakes, guinea pigs) and then he screams at them LIKE YOU! and they howl.
Read Guinea Dog and tell me what you think. Or if you’re looking for something for slightly older readers, read The Wolving Time, a book set in France during a time of witch-hunts. It’s a brilliantly constructed story of a 13-year old boy from a sheep-herding family who can turn themselves into wolves at will. So, role-reversal, guess what the 13-year wants to do?