“The way I see it…Charlie would answer and Jack would  listen.”

~ THIS WAY, CHARLIE by Caron Levis, with art by Charles Santoso

Guest post by Caron Levis

I have always been an eavesdropper and collector of things kids say and do. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to gather kid language through both my personal and professional life. I fill notebooks and index cards with verbatim quotes and observations; I re-tell my favorite anecdotes and kid moments over and over to adults or other kids; I’ve kept every anthology of student writing I’ve worked on. In the apartment I lived in during one of my first education jobs, I had the hallway plastered with quotes and writing from the students I was working with. I literally surrounded myself with their words and now, their words help me write books!

Notebook of kids’ words

I have always loved listening to kids and also the challenge of talking with them about their Big Questions and Big Feelings, so this—plus ye ole reading of plenty of wonderful kid’s books—has been where I’ve developed my writing ear and voice.

  • LISTENING to kids has given me an internal sense of rhythm, vocabulary, phrase structures of many different children. As I draft, I’m reading aloud constantly to mostly imaginary (sometimes real-life) kids in order to feel how the words land.
  • TALKING with real kids has given me practice in finding words that will meet their curiosity honestly while also being mindful of their feelings. These experiences help me imagine potential reader questions and reactions so I can try (it is so hard!) to be accountable to them.
  • RECORDING things kids say and do has helped me remember ways kids have answered their own questions or made meaning out of challenging times. Most of my books have specific moments or quotes from children that guided the story in some way. Inspiration for STUCK THE BLOOZ came directly from a conversation with a kindergartener about being sad; IDA, ALWAYS got emotional direction from watching kids enact a funeral for a bug and a quote from a six year old who was grieving a close relative. THIS WAY, CHARLIE has many moments of kid inspiration that guided my writing choices.

THIS WAY, CHARLIE is about a horse named Charlie who is adjusting to going blind and a wary distrustful goat named Jack who meet at an animal sanctuary. After getting off to a bumpy start, the two navigate their own and each other’s challenges to become the best of buddies.

In one spread, Charlie urges Jack to hang out with some of the other animals but Jack is not ready. Overwhelmed by fear and frustration, Jack snaps something very mean to his beloved best friend.

This moment with Jack was guided by many moments I’ve seen with kids (and adults!). I wanted to reflect, validate, and honor that these moments happen and that kids have the ability to unpack them. I found a quote in my notebook from a kindergartener who had had a fight with his best buddy. Like Jack, the goat, this child didn’t usually verbalize his thoughts and feelings, but rather communicated primarily through behaviors. So, when we sat down to unpack the fight with him, I admit I fully expected to have to give him language for his behavior—but instead, he explained it clearly to us. I have already heard young readers explaining Jack’s behavior in a similar way.

“I think part of it was a misunderstanding…then I said things, just because I was so mad, that were mean. But, like, I didn’t really want to say them.”

~ a kindergartener, after a fight with a good frien (2004)

The animals in THIS WAY, CHARLIE come to depend on one another: Charlie depends on Jack for physical guidance to the field, and Jack relies on Charlie for emotional guidance as he begins to take chances on socializing. How do kids (or any of us) decide what makes someone dependable? Honestly, if you asked me in an interview to explain what being dependable means—I’d likely have some long garbled answer with a lot of ums in it. Luckily, my notebook has this gem in it from another kindergarten student who once told her class,

“Depending on someone means you really think they’ll help you.”

~ a kindergarten student

Now did I read these quotes in my book before I wrote THIS WAY, CHARLIE and consciously use them? Nope! But I had read through my blue-notebook a bazillion times and when I found these quotes after the book had gone to print, I recognized the influence. HOW I choose my words doesn’t come from my conscious Thinking brain so much as it comes from all I’ve absorbed from children over many years—and soooooo much nit-picking revision work.

Whenever I am stuck, or in need of inspiration, I turn to my collection of quotes for help—because I’ve learned I can always depend on the kids.

How have kids have inspired you?

Many thanks to Caron for guest blogging today…and for offering a copy of this lovely book.

Leave one comment below to enter the giveaway.

A THIS WAY, CHARLIE winner will be randomly selected in about two weeks.

Good luck!

Caron Levis (MFA; LMSW) is the author of the award winning children’s picture book, IDA, ALWAYS (Atheneum) illustrated by Charles Santosos, which the New York Times Book Review calls, “an example of children’s books at their best.” Caron’s other picture book titles include: THIS WAY, CHARLIE (Abrams 2020, STOP THAT YAWN! (Atheneum); MAY I HAVE A WORD? (FSG), and MAMA’S WORK SHOES (Abrams.) Her stories for teens and adults have been published in magazines and anthologies; plays have been selected for the Estrogenius Festival and the Samuel French OOB Festival’s Final Forty; the film adaptation of Attendant won Best Short in Sunscreen Film Festival West (2018) and selected for the Garden State Film Festival. Caron is a professor at NYU and The New School’s Creative Writing MFA program where she is the advisor for the Children/YA concentration. Visit her at caronlevis.com.