Updated: Jun 30, 2021
When Darren and I started working on Willow the Wonderer, we did not have any aspirations to start our own publishing company. Wise As Stories - the brand, the logo, the tagline - did not exist. Our 'COVID project' had begun simply with a shared desire to 'create stories we wish we'd grown up with'. What sort of stories? 'Quirky ones, that came with a side of wisdom'. As we near the launch of our first 'wise as' story, we share a retrospective on the five essential ingredients that we believe are the makings of of great 'wise as' stories - wisdom, as it turns out, is central.
1. Wisdom first, everything else follows
Whilst our tagline is - Quirky, with a side of wisdom - wisdom is actually central to our stories.
In this way we are not too dissimilar to the folklore tradition of fables, where conveying a moral lesson was the primary purpose of the story, although we prefer to use the term wisdom vs moral (my earlier post on fables outlines why).
We start the process of story-making with the same question we pose in our mission statement.
What are the essential pieces of wisdom that we wish someone had told us when we were growing up ... which could have saved us a lot of time in our adult life as we went about trying to figure out life!
Life is a strange thing - so many before of have lived through it, so many are living it with us, yet there is no definitive guidelines on how to live one's life? How to be happy?
Some would argue there is one and it's called religion ... Others would point to ideologies of the modern-day consumption-based capitalist economic system as another.
Most people today live between these two systems (religion and capitalism) and most people are happy with neither.
For some, the search for purpose and meaning continues through their life. Their solace often comes from ancient wisdom traditions with it's profound insights into life and living. These insights have a universal quality to them i.e. they resonate with everyone at some level regardless of differences in religious, social, political and economic ideologies. That to us is true wisdom.
So in our first book, we decided to tackle the most central questions in our human life - what is happiness and where can we find it?
In many ways this first book is speaking to our life, our journey, our discovery and finally 'the insight'. We wrote it knowing that it is similar to many other people's journeys, discoveries and insights - so it will no doubt resonate if not serve as a reminder to those that know.
But we mostly wrote to help our young readers who may at some point in their young adult life also embark on their very own quest for purpose, meaning and ultimately happiness.
Their future selves will hopefully benefit from having a few seeds of wisdom embedded somewhere deep within their psyche, waiting for the right moment to germinate. It may just lead them to the insights earlier, faster and with less 'wear and tear' than we had to endure!
If wisdom is so central to our writing, why call it a side then? Are we downplaying the importance somehow?
No. Whilst a piece of wisdom is profound and deep in it's own right, it does not mean that other elements of storytelling can be compromised on ... rather the opposite is true. The reader needs to be fully engaged in a narrative to be able to grasp the essence contained within. Otherwise the whole thing would ring hollow.
Our approach is to be clear on the essential wisdom we are there to convey and then build a great story around it all.
2. Next, comes the story
Getting the story or narrative or plot line right is central to writing a good piece of fiction. A good narrative is takes the reader beyond the limits of their own conceptions whilst being relatable enough to be 'believable'.
Put another way, at some level all stories should 'ring true' - even if you are writing in the fantasy or science fiction genre - or maybe especially if you writing in these genres.
Great pieces of fiction I find always 'flirts' with reality.
As imaginative as the stories may be, the plot will often reference, if not be based on an essential insight into our reality.
Take George Orwell's 1984 where the plot revolves around a police state that scrutinises every citizens every move. Every ruling regime had it's spies so the notion of the state using surveillance to protect it's interest had a basis in reality that made the story believable even when first published in the 1940s. Orwell's genius of course was foretelling how surveillance would move from being a targeted act carried out on suspected criminals to being a continuous process of 'mass surveillance' that has become commonplace now - and ironically not only used by the States to control but more notably by large tech companies and social media platforms to exploit.
Similarly, Margaret Atwood's depiction of abuse of women by the governing patriarchy in the Handmaid's Tale is emblematic of human history where countless atrocities against women have been sanctioned and committed by patriarchal political and social systems and their agents. Similar to Orwell, her vision of returning to such a past has even stronger resonance now as we see individuals and institutions with far-right ideologies consolidate political and judicial power around the world - a very disturbing trend that was most evident during the Trump-era presidency.
More recently, JK Rowling in her Harry Potter series shows an absolute mastery at taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. The magical world that she created is a direct parallel to our every day world and lives. It is no wonder the whole world has become so enchanted with it all...
We go to school - they go to a magical school
We get lessons, homework and exams - they get magical lesson, homework and exams
We have teachers we love and hate - they have teachers they love and hate
We have bureaucracies and self serving politicians - They have the Ministry of Magic
We have bankers - they have goblins (who are the bankers)
We have evil dictators and corporations bent on destroying the world - they have Voldemort
And because it's fantasy and not reality, they do have one thing that we don't - Harry Potter, the chosen one who solves all their problems...
Getting the balance between reality and fantasy right is even harder when writing for young children - they are a demanding lot!
Their imaginations are still running rife and their mode of learning is questioning. The story needs to be able to withstand the questioning of these curious, uninhibited minds - whilst being able to provide it with more fodder to grow and expand.
And the one thing that anyone writing for children should never do is to 'dumb things down'. All enduring pieces of children's literature have tackled profound subject with great care, deft and intelligence.
Putting this into practice meant that we based Willow's story on the search for happiness very closely to our very own personal journeys, told however through the lens of a child. A child who wakes up with a burning question in their mind one day and embarks on their very own quest, powered by their endless possibility of their imagination. The imaginative abilities of our little protagonists is in fact what allowed us to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, weaving an engaging narrative along the way.
I cannot say more without giving away the book so you'll just need to read the book to find out more ... ;-)
3. Then, an endearing protagonist
Every story needs a protagonist and we wanted ours to be endearing.
Any child who asks such deep and profound questions so early in life would have already stolen our heart. The question here was really about what other attributes do we need to build in that will inspire affection more broadly.
In today's society, appearance has unfortunately become the dominant attribute that inspires affection - at least right at the start. Who does not like a cute child right?
We started off with a 'human' protagonist so had to grapple with this. The problem being that 'what is cute' in today's globalised mass media society has been narrowed down so much that it has become very particular to certain ethnic identities - predominantly white or Eurocentric looks.
Take me with my Indian heritage for instance - how many children's book do you think I read growing up that featured brown kids?
I must stress though the lack of representation never for a moment took away from my enjoyment of reading great books, becoming lost in their stories and loving and identifying with the personalities in the stories - regardless of their ethnicity, colour or gender. It goes to show that as kids, we are truly colour-blind.
Representation is important though and it's wonderful to see more stories with more diverse characters hitting the shelves and making it to bestsellers lists.
But it's important to not lose sight of children's innocence about the whole thing in the process. I go back to my childhood experience with stories - kids don't care about these sort of things. All they care about is having friends they can play with.
It will be a shame if early childhood literature becomes 'segregated' into books for girls vs. books for boys vs. books for brown kids vs. books for white kids vs. books for Asians vs. books for whites and so forth...
The message in our book was universal and we wanted a character that spoke to everyone. For us this meant walking away from having a human protagonist in our book - this after most of the illustrations has been done!
We went back to the drawing board and looked at the personality of our protagonist, which funnily enough reflected ours ... a bunch of quirky wise asses ;-)
Out of this fell out the idea to have an animal character - one that went against the stereotype. As per our cover, we went with a baby donkey, a smart baby donkey - a little wise ass, literally!
Using an anthropromorphised character actually helped greatly to tell a story, the intent of which was to convey a piece of wisdom. This choice once again brought us closer to the tradition of fables - and helped me appreciate why ancient storytellers had chosen animals to convey moral lessons in the first place.
4. Add in some practical purpose
Stories can be conveyed in many ways these days - print, audio, video or a combination. We opted to start with the very established medium of print and produce a picture book.
Books by their very nature already serve the very practical purpose of helping it's readers become more adept at a given language - reading, writing and speaking it.
Our book is meant for young children so we knew that just spending reading our story with their teachers, siblings and parents, in their pre-schools, kindergartens, classrooms and homes would serve this very practical purpose of learning to read, write and speak better.
But not every kid is a reader so how to make it more engaging?
It was then that we decided to write in rhyme. We has started off with the idea to write in rhyme but seeing the trends in the publishing industry - children's book publishers are no longer accepting manuscripts written in rhyme - were questioning whether we go down the path.
Rhymes are written to a meter and when read aloud (which is how we imagined our book will be read) has a natural melody to it. And who does not like a good melody?
A melodious stanza helps create and engage kids interest, it helps them to remember new words and sounds, and is more fun all around. Not all kids love to read, but every child loves to rhyme. And it is a great way to introduce them to the great artform that is poetry.
So the first choice we made was to enhance the practical learning experience of our young readers by writing in perfect rhyme. It made the process more fun for us too!
But was there more we could bring to the table?