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A year ago last autumn in Chicago during the Architecture Biennial, one exhibit captured my imagination. Situated in the middle of a large room were several dozen waist-high stands, each holding small everyday objects, such as fake flowers, egg crate foam, or a crumpled mini plastic water bottle.
What made the objects startling, though, was that the artist/architect had included tiny plastic people on or by each group of objects. Those plastic people changed the objects from everyday to fantastic—no longer just things you’d find in a junk drawer, they were now a whole new landscape for those little people. I had a moment of vertigo. I was looking at something small, a pile of Pringles, but to the plastic people, the Pringles were hills. And if the Pringles were hills, what did that make me?
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Did I click on the right blog? Isn’t this supposed to be about WRITING?” But writing is the first thing that came to mind when I saw the exhibit, particularly writing for children, because the everyday can become fantastic if you just change your perspective. We do it all the time as writers of kids’ books. We imagine ourselves as we were when we were three or seven or ten. We remember what it felt like to be younger, smaller, under our parents’ control.
But as writers, we’re not limited to imagining ourselves as children. We can imagine ourselves as anything at all. A monkey. A vampire. A purple two-headed dragon. A little plastic person in a field of giant fake flowers. We can picture ourselves on the outside looking in . . . or on the inside longing to get out.
Perspective has been on my mind a lot lately. This year, I had two books come out that look at perspective differently. The first, LADY LIBERTY’S HOLIDAY, features a larger-than-life main character, the Statue of Liberty, and views America through her eyes. To her, Niagara Falls isn’t just a gorgeous waterfall—it’s the perfect spot to shower. And the Golden Gate Bridge? A great place to nap. The only thing that makes her feel small is the Grand Canyon.
MARTA! BIG AND SMALL, on the other hand, takes on the idea of how perspective differs depending on what something is compared to. So compared to an elephant, Marta is small. Compared to a bug, she is big. (Or “grande”—it’s a bilingual book.) It’s the whole idea of me, the Pringles, and the tiny plastic people. We are all big, and we are all small. Everything is relative.
And this is where the inspiration comes from. If you’re looking for a new idea, change your perspective. What would it be like if you were the size of a mouse? What would you eat . . . or wear . . . or play with? What if you were as big as a Brachiosaurus?
Look around. A pile of Pringles can be a hillside. A handful of twigs can be a forest. A piece of egg crate foam on its side can be a modern housing development. Lie on the floor. Crawl on your knees. Climb a ladder and see what it’s like to be eight feet tall. Take an elevator to the top of a tall building and look down. Then look up. Who sees the world that way? There’s your character. What challenges would they face? There’s your plot.
In one of the explanations of the exhibit, the artist/architect wrote “Anything stacked is architecture.” He found inspiration for his craft in the everyday, just as I found inspiration in his exhibit. Who knows where your next idea might come from? Like architecture, inspiration is everywhere!
For more on the exhibit, Sou Fujimoto’s “Architecture Is Everywhere,” click on this link.
Jen Arena writes, edits, and finds for inspiration in the world around her for everything from easy-to-reads to picture books to early chapter books. Her recent titles include BESOS FOR BABY (Little Brown), LADY LIBERTY’S HOLIDAY (Knopf), and MARTA! BIG AND SMALLl (Roaring Brook), which the Huffington Post named in its Best Picture Books of 2016 as an Honorable Mention in the category of—you guessed it—“Best on Perspective.” Her next picture book SLEEP TIGHT, SNOW WHITE will be published in 2017 by Knopf. Visit her on twitter at @hallojen or at her website: jenarenabooks.com.
In honor of the very first Storystorm, Jen is giving away a thirty-minute brainstorming session/Q&A/editorial consult phone call. She has twenty years of experience as an editor with Putnam, Golden Books, and Random House and has been writing for kids just as long. Ask away!
Leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once on this blog post. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.