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What makes Willow the Wonderer picture books so great? We break down the five essential ingredients

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

When Darren and I started working on our first picture book, Willow the Wonderer, we did not have any aspirations to start our own publishing company ... Our 'COVID project' had begun simply with a shared desire to 'create stories we wish we'd grown up with'. What sort of stories? 'Beautiful stories that plant a seed of wisdom.' As we near the launch of our debut picture book, we share a retrospective on the five ingredients that make for great 'wise as' stories.

1. Wisdom first, everything else follows

Wisdom is central to the stories in our picture books.

This is is what we build the narrative around - and in fact have planned the Willow the Wonderer series around.

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 age-old wisdom traditions (e.g. philosophical traditions from the West and contemplative traditions from the East) 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.

When we use the word wisdom, we are referring to such insights.

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 picture 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 blossom.

It may just lead them to the insights earlier, faster and with less 'wear and tear' than we had to endure!

2. Next, comes the story

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.

A great story not only stretches the imagination of the readers but also manages to stay utterly relatable.

Put another way, at some level, all stories should 'ring true'.

This holds even when you are writing a story 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, and 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