[In appreciation - for Donna Brooks]
In June 2003 I participated in a writing conference at Manhattanville College in New York. I was enrolled in the Masters in Writing program at the time, and we were required to attend at least one of the annual week-long summer conferences. In addition to attending panels with editors and agents, going to readings, and learning about aspects of the publishing world, we all had to choose one creative seminar that we would attend every morning. I chose the Writing for Young Adults seminar, led by Donna Brooks who was at that time the Editorial Director at Dutton Children’s Books, an imprint of the Penguin Group.
Donna admitted to us at the outset that she was nervous—she said she had never done anything like this before. The information she passed to us came from her extensive knowledge of the children’s book business and her experience as an editor. But once she felt comfortable with our group, it was her passion for the books and their authors that really came across and made an impression on me. I took copious notes and still refer to them.
Shortly after our seminar, Donna left Dutton (which was, from what I understand, not her decision), and from what I've heard over the years, she left the children's book business to do different things with her life. I have always considered it a tragic loss for all of us in the industry. I only knew her for a week, but her editorial passion inspired me to follow my own heart, which led me to writing young adult stories.
I’ve always wanted to pass on some of what Donna shared with us. A lot of what she talked about had to do with character, specifically characters that are children. Here are a few things she asked us to keep in mind when writing for children:
- Consequences of the Heart: consequences flow from a character’s choices and actions and emotional flow.
- Children’s fiction is about the choices children make and the consequences of those choices, and how they live with them.
- Young children are feeling all the time. Children are always dealing with their powerlessness.
- Children experience things through concrete images: i.e., when a parent dies, a child will want to know who will make the dinner, do the laundry, etc.
- Don’t worry about a character reflecting badly on YOU (the writer). Don’t let the “mother” in you take over—don’t write from a “mothering” place. Let the character go wherever he/she needs to go.
- “Every minute we are inventing ourselves. Your characters are inventing themselves and by that, discovering what is important.” – D. Brooks