By Steve Heron OAM

No one is told any story but their own.

–from the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.

When I look back at the books I loved as a child, one that stands out is “Tootle”, a Little Golden Book. I wasn’t sure why it stood out until I reread it for the first time in over fifty years. It became apparent. The little train wanted to do its own thing and went off the rails to explore and enjoy the countryside. So much of the story is about who I am, except for the ending, which is rather preachy.

We find ourselves in a story.

– Steve Heron

I have been inspired to power hope in children and find effective ways to do this for most of my life. For many years, this was through working in pastoral care with children and then through social and emotional wellbeing, where I created the BUZ Build Up Zone initiatives and programs.

I have now settled on writing kids’ books. I saw the value of picture books while creating meaningful lessons that help develop children’s social and emotional wellbeing skills. The best of these books were the non-didactic ones that didn’t preach or were overly moralistic. The most effective ones created discussion, allowing for ethics conversation, where children could relate to the characters’ emotions and experiences and have the opportunity to delve into the narrative to find hope.

My initial plan as a children’s author was to focus on writing picture books. I set out to do a Diploma of Children’s Writing and Publishing. One assignment in the course was to write the first chapter of a middle-grade novel. Not what I had planned to do. However, I had an idea and set to work. The first two chapters came into being, so I submitted them both. I didn’t wait for the assessment. The story that was in me needed finishing.

I received my first trade publishing contract two years later, not for one of the twenty-plus picture books I’d written and submitted, but for the middle-grade novel that started out as an assignment. The novel, Maximus, became an outlet for the collected stories children told me in pastoral care sessions over the years. I combined the experiences of many children into a handful of characters and created a story about an eleven-year-old boy, his friendship difficulties, and his troubling family life. In the story, he befriends a backyard magpie, and the two help each other regain their respective mojos.

I have had many opportunities to present at schools, libraries, and writer’s festivals in the years since its release. I value the place of realistic fiction in the lives of children. And I realise how important books of all genres are to children in allowing them to connect their own narrative with the characters.

The first young person to read Maximus was a thirteen-year-old girl who borrowed (stole) my author’s copy before its release. As she was reading and not giving it back to me, she said, “I so relate to this stuff. This happens in my family and with my friends. I get it.” She was connecting with the story because it told part of her story.

My all-time favourite children’s book is The Sea Thing Child by Russell Hoban. I could define the book genre as a picture storybook. The story is about a small bird-like creature washed up on a beach after a storm. He is lost, lonely and unsure of his destiny. He encounters a strange Fiddler Crab who offers an unusual friendship and cryptic clues that encourage the Sea Thing Child to find his destiny. He also meets a singing eel and a pipe-smoking albatross, who also add to this encouragement. None of them tells him what to do or where to go, or how to do it, but each gives small clues and subtle guidance that helps the Sea Thing Child release his inhibitions and fulfil his destiny to become the Puffin that he is. It is a beautiful story of empathy, restoration, and hope. Over the years, I used it as an analogy and inspiration in my passion to power hope in children.

When I think about this book, it convinces me that a children’s book is a compass. Let me unpack what that means. What is the purpose of a compass? To find our way? Not really. A compass doesn’t show you where to go. A compass is mainly used to orientate yourself so you can navigate the direction you want to go. The combination of a map, a compass, and knowledge allows you to orientate yourself so you can find your own way. The compass is part of that combination. A good children’s book does the same; it enables a child to orient themselves, helped by the narrative of others, to engage with their own narrative with more purpose and to navigate their own emotional waters with a better sense of direction. A compass enables hope. A good children’s book should facilitate hope.

Like a compass, a good children’s book enables a child to orientate themselves, helped by the narrative.

Many years ago, I led a children’s creative arts workshop on the theme “I Wish”. I set the children a challenge to create a work of art using any medium they chose. One eight-year-old boy set to work on a large blank news-roll with paints, markers, and glitter. The result was a banner boldly displaying these words, “Hope is more powerful than a wish.”

It was magnificent. I asked him, ‘Where did you learn that?’

His reply blew me away. ‘I just made it up.’

Convinced it was a famous quote from somewhere, I later looked it up on the internet. I could not find any reference to it anywhere. Harry had indeed written an original quote, one that was to become my motivation for the next umpteen years.

Hope is more powerful than a wish.

– Harry McCourt

Let’s also unpack this. What is a wish? Anyone can make a wish. Who grants wishes? The wish fairy? Wizards? Genies? Fairy Godmothers? God? The power to grant wishes is outside the person making a wish. A wish is a longing for something unlikely to happen, making it almost unobtainable unless an outside force interjects.

On the other hand, what is hope? Hope is something we can work towards, which helps us think of a better tomorrow, something we can do something about. The power of hope is inside us.

A wish suggests the power for change is outside of you – hope draws on the power within.

Whatever it takes to encourage the power to release hope is a blessing. A children’s book can have that power. A child reading a well-written children’s book can find their own way using the narrative compass.

My latest novel, One Thousand Snapshots, is about eleven-year-old Maddy trying to navigate her way through life without her biggest hero; her dad.

Her guilt over what she believes was her part in his death leads Maddy on a quest to take one thousand snapshots of moments in time and with people she loves, wishing she could share them with him.

This leads her to an encounter with djiti djiti–a willie wagtail who reminds Maddy that there is hope, even when life seems difficult.

Children reading this story will constantly check their moral compasses as they engage with Maddy in her search for belonging to a world of ever-changing emotions.

One Thousand Snapshots is realistic fiction where children readers can relate to the experiences of the everyday characters. Peer and family relationships, bullying, grief, puberty, changing emotions, and pre-teen anxieties are all scenarios in the story based on reality.

Where does fantasy fit in? We know children love fantasy. Isn’t fantasy all about dragons, fairies, goblins and … wishes? Yes, but ultimately it is a story based on the characters’ narratives, their desire to overcome obstacles, their interaction with others and their own emotional world, which children can relate to.

Our friend Gandalf says,

“Some believe it is only GREAT POWER that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

This quote is from a book that is overflowing with fantasy. In the middle of it all is the very essence of humanity, kindness, and the ability to share it. The narrative of the characters and their struggle to bring about compassion is what makes a story so great. It’s what children want to read about; to gain power from and inflame the internal hope as they use the book as a compass.

My first trade published and newly released picture book, Ling Li’s Lantern, exquisitely illustrated by Benjamin Johnston, is a tale of wisdom and surprising compassion.

Ling Li and her brothers receive a small sum of money from their father, who sets them a challenge to test their wisdom. After her brothers complete the task, Ling Li returns from the village marketplace with only a lantern to light her way. As the story unfolds, the reader witnesses Ling Li using her given money to help other people; money meant to demonstrate her wisdom. Part of my intention in the story is to allow a child reader to relate to the main character, Ling Li, and feel for her in a way that attaches to their inner need to show kindness. At the same time, show Ling Li’s struggle with her acts of kindness thwarting the very quest her father sends her on. The compass of the narrative is trying to find where to point, and I invite the reader to hold on to that compass until it helps them to orientate their own values.

While it is not specifically a story about hope, readers will gain a strong sense of hope. Hope is there; it is always there, and it flourishes into a marvellous outcome, restoring the reader’s faith in compassion being the essence of humanity.

“Wisdom without compassion is like a lantern without a flame.”

– Steve Heron from Ling Li’s Lantern.

“The true essence of humankind is kindness. There are other qualities which come from education or knowledge, but it is essential if one wishes to be a genuine human being and impart satisfying meaning to one’s existence, to have a good heart.”

– Tenzin Gyatso The 14th Dalai Lama (B. 1835)

I recently listened to a publisher talking about what they want to see in a manuscript.

“It’s not happily ever after I am looking for. I am looking for an essence, the essence of….”

She paused. I wanted to call out, “HOPE”. I didn’t need to; she explained that she wanted children to take away something that empowers them, ignites their energy, inspires, helps them find courage, and fosters optimism. My interpretation – that something is hope. 

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

– Neil Gaiman

Children’s books are not necessarily about ending happily ever after; they are more about rousing hope. A good children’s book darn well better tangibly present hope. If it doesn’t, I don’t believe it’s a good children’s book.

C. S. Lewis said, “A good children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

Loved as a child, always loved – is what I believe about children’s books.

A children’s book is a compass to hold, read, love, navigate, and stir hope.

Original version Positive Schools Mental Health and Wellbeing Conferences 2020

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