[Editor's Note: Read our Kids' Q&A with N. D. Wilson
Bedtime. It is the most important time in my day. At bedtime, I tuck four children into the appropriate beds in the appropriate rooms. They never think they're tired. Their eyes are bright and their young minds crackle with surprising thoughts on the day, the future, the nature of the universe. At bedtime, I let go of four imaginations, and they wander alone through the darkness, unchaperoned, unguided, shaping visions for themselves, resting in warmth or wandering into terror.
Every night, I feel like I'm launching paper boats into an ocean. I point my children as best I can. I flavor their minds with subjects and characters and songs and dances and blessings. And when they are warm and spilling over with joy, I let go, and I wait for the morning to hear of their adventures.
This is why we sing about drunken sailors and what to do with them, about how some folks say a man is made out of mud, about lost Scottish love and the walls of Jerusalem. This is why I tell them stories.
At first, when story nights came, I would gather them around the youngest brother (then in crib captivity), and I would tell them some fatherly version of a tale from history or legend. They heard all sorts of things about dragons and wars and prophets and ill-behaved gods. But after a while, I wanted them more active, more invested in the stories. And so, one night, as they gathered around, I told them they could each pick one character (or thing) and I would weave them all into a single story. The arrangement would (I thought) stimulate growth in everyone involved. They got to participate, and I got a creative writing exercise.
And then they discovered hyphens. It was Lucia (then four) who introduced them to our little story sessions. Much to her older brother's chagrin, she loved butterflies. But she didn't love them exclusively. She loved unicorns (especially if they were part butterfly) and ballerinas (especially if they could turn into unicorns and butterflies) and princesses (so long as they knew ballet and could turn into unicorns and butterflies). Her little sister added slightly more courageous elements (puppies that could turn into nice girl dragons or clone themselves into whole packs of puppies that could turn into nice girl dragons). What could a brother do but play the game? He struggled to counteract the butterfly-unicorn-ballerina-princessness with more and more gruesome monsters, hoping that his father would take the hint and allow the girlier elements in the story to be devoured — something I was unable to do.
I achieved my goals. My kids were involved, and I certainly got to work on my narrative agility. But the system finally collapsed around my ears when my son introduced the giant, creeping Land Squid that only eats butterfly-unicorn-ballerina-princesses and puppies and girl dragons and can smell them anywhere and can't die and can magically transport itself after its prey and is always really, really hungry.
That night, no one went to bed happy.
I am regularly asked why I write stories for children. The easy answer? I'm childish. But to be honest, I have no intention of limiting myself to children's stories. At this phase of my life, however, they are the most important stories I can tell. I have children, I love children, and imaginations need food. The world is big. The world is wonderful. But it is also terrifying. It is an ocean full of paper boats. For many children, the only nobility, the only joy, the only strength and sacrifice that they see firsthand comes in fiction. Even when children have plenty of joy in their lives, good stories reinforce it. As long as I'm dealing in honesty, I may as well admit that I have been more influenced (as a person) by my childhood readings of Tolkien and Lewis than I have been by any philosophers I read in college and grad school. The events and characters in Narnia and Middle Earth shaped my ideals, my dreams, my goals. Kant just annoyed me.
When I write for kids, I try to embrace the wildness of the world. I have no desire to trick children into false security. My characters almost always begin a story afraid. In 100 Cupboards, a timid Henry York discovers the world as it is, and it terrifies him. But it also challenges him, and he rises to that challenge — even more so in Dandelion Fire. Evil is real (and it must really be overcome), but it is no more real than Goodness.
Enough posing. I'm childish. I like books for kids. I like reading good ones. I like trying to write good ones. I like readers that still have some elasticity to their imaginations. I like readers that demand some variation of "happily ever after" at the end of a story.
These days, my youngest is no longer crib contained (though he's not exactly interested in sitting still for a story). But he's still involved. The three older ones sit cross-legged on the floor while he plays, and they listen to a story — one in a series. You see, there was this old man, and a magpie had stolen his two magic stones, and as he was chasing the bird, he ran into four children. Their names were Rory, Lucia, Ameera, and Seamus, and little did they know what catching that magpie would mean for them.
No more butterfly-unicorn-ballerina-princesses. No more giant, creeping land squids or cloning puppies. But there is a palace in the sky and a friendly dragon and personable elephant and a Peruvian mine full of magical treasures.
And that should be enough for anyone.