Donna S. Eckelbarger
Can you imagine running out of ideas to write about? With every child I encounter daily, just watching them play and work are stories waiting to be told. What can a fifty-something-year-old learn from her very young students?
Let’s begin with play. What do kids like to do? Play with animals, dolls, and trains. Not only are toys used as their props, but there is a real sense of order, continuity sprinkled with ad lib. I once watched three children play with ponies, and their dialogue went something like this:
“You can be the mommy pony and I will be the sister pony,” Grace pointing to Lilly.
“I will put the house over here and Clara can feed the ponies,” Lilly putting the ponies inside the house.
“But I want to be the sister pony. You always get to be the sister pony!” Clara whines.
All the while, ponies were tossed in the air and the playhouse was knocked over as the children continued arguing. The end result took an unexplained turn and the three children laughed, set their roles in place, and worked through their scene. The entire drama took place over two minutes, and playtime lasted about twenty minutes.
How could this be? And why is it important? I’ve worked with very young children most of my life and play is really serious business, much like choosing a topic to write about. As I choose a topic of interest, I watch and wonder to myself, “Hmm, if only the children turned into ponies, then they would have the best time ever.”
Then begins the bare bones of my next story. Children interact as they play, but to create the story involves characters. What if the children turned into ponies that had wings and their house turned into a tree house in the middle of the city? A story forms, and that is the muse for my story “Ponies Live in My Tree House.”
Now wait, is this all? No. What if I told you that most children’s books give me bursts of ideas? “I could have done a better job writing about bees on a farm,” I’d say to myself after reading to a few children in my classroom. And another idea began forming in my head: “There is a Bee in My Hair.” Bees are a scary bunch, so why not write about a friendship between a bee and a five-year-old smiling little girl? By living in a hive beneath an apple tree, Lilly engages in a sweet adventure with her bee friend, Beatrice.
How about children waiting in line at a children’s theme park? I worked as a storyteller at County Line Apple Orchard one fall day and thought, “What if there was this precocious, impatient seven-year-old who loved trains and had to ride one now or scream at the top of her lungs?” This actually happened at the children’s Moo train, and the other parents were very happy to accommodate this sweet little monster, Matilda. She became an amusing character in my story “Moo Train Adventure.”
One day I was browsing in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble bookstore when I noticed a new line of cardboard books based on Shakespeare, Kipling, and Baum classics. With many interesting stories written at the turn of the last century, why not begin with very young children and introduce them to the classics in a scaled-back version of the original? As I scanned these books by Jennifer Adams, she took a complex drama and narrowed the story to fit the children’s age and their development. If you like the classics, folklore, or legends, ideas are plenty.
As I engage with children daily, I recall my younger years as a naughty kid who was an active, fortunate tomboy; I played kickball and tetherball, rode skates, and rode my bike, too, and I have the scars to prove it. For example, in my story “Brave Little Girl,” my character Penny terrorizes her neighborhood every morning with her loud big wheel. One morning she went to get her yellow big wheel and found little notes taped to her handlebars. What Penny did next will amaze you as she confronts the battle of the wills and her angry neighbors.
Now that I have given you plenty of ideas for the next children’s book, why not get your spiral notepad and begin writing an outline. I can hardly wait to write my next children’s book! Let’s begin now. Once upon a time, there was a teeny, tiny house in the middle of . . .
So what will be your next line on your way to the next bestseller?