Writers and artists often find particular images or themes that keep popping up in their paintings and stories. Sometimes it's intentional, sometimes it's just there.
As a maker of books for children, I recently discovered a thread woven into many of the books I've written or illustrated. It definitely wasn't on purpose, but I thought it was worth exploring.
Apparently, I’m inspired by sinking ships.
Of the nine published (or soon-to-be published) books that I've written or illustrated, four of them have at least one scene that involves a vessel going down.
I actually sank a boat in an ocean storm a few years back. Me and three other guys were coming home from a camping trip on an island several miles offshore. A storm had blown through in the night and the wind had picked up significantly.
From the lee side of the island, it looked like we could make it. As the captain, I made the call and piled us all into the little skiff. Halfway in, a mile and a half from shore, the waves picked up, getting taller and taller. We couldn’t keep going and we couldn’t turn back.
One big wave came over the front of the boat, another came over the back, and the skiff disappeared under us. All our gear sank or floated away, and we were eventually left clinging to a capsized boat hoping and praying that someone would find us before we went hypothermic or drifted out into the open ocean.
We were lucky. We were rescued.
At some point in everyone’s life, their ship starts to sink. There’s someone reading this right now whose ship is sinking. It could be their health. Trouble at school or a job. Worries with money. Their family.
And just like my misadventure in an ocean storm, we can often make direct connections between our sinking ships and our choices along the way. In my case, we knew the weather forecast. We could see the whitecaps. We even had the option to keep the boat in the protection of the river or camp inland instead of out on an island. But we decided to press on, certain of our own invincibility, and had to live with the consequences.
Kids don’t always get those choices. Often as not, they’re passengers on somebody else’s adventure–along for the ride until all of a sudden waves start crashing over the
bow. What they thought was safe turns out to be a crisis unfolding.
If a kid is lucky, they’ve got someone in their life who will hold them up above the swell until rescue comes.
But not everyone’s lucky.
Some kids find themselves tossed overboard, alone on a liferaft, unsure what to do next. Or worse yet, they find themselves treading water with nothing to cling to. There’s no land in sight. The light is fading. Sharks are starting to circle.
Which brings us to books. If a childhood crisis is like a sinking ship, a book can be a life jacket. Or maybe a signal flare or even a lighthouse–pick your favorite metaphor. When a kid sees themselves or their scary situation reflected in a story, it’s like a voice from the sky that shouts above the storm, “Hang on! We see you! Help is on the way!”
When you’re that lost and desperate it doesn’t matter where the voice is coming from. All that matters is that you’ve been found. (Trust me, I wouldn’t have cared if it was a Russian sub or a rove of pirate mermaids that pulled us shivering out of the drink.)
A well-written book for kids can show them how things may be dark and cold right now, but the situation is not hopeless. Dawn will break. Land is on the horizon. The right story may be the encouragement a child in crisis needs to keep paddling or swimming or treading water because somebody else has been in their exact same spot and lived to tell about it. It could be the very thing that convinces them to reach out for help.
And as someone who’s been rescued from my own sinking ships, both figurative and literal, my eyes and ears are constantly open for the warning signs. SOS signals blasted out on air horns. Frantically waving hands. Flares shooting up in the night sky. I'm thinking about the kids on those ships with every book I write.
Growing up is like learning to sail while your ship is sinking.
And when we make books that give hope to kids who need it–whether our books are goofy or sad or scary or serious–we’re a small part of the solution.
But the real heroes are the teachers, librarians, parents, publishers, and booksellers who put our stories into the hands of young readers. They're often unsung, under-appreciated, and underfunded, but the work they do is saving lives.
Together, I guess that makes us some sort of ragtag rescue fleet or maybe the literary Coast Guard. There are many lives to save and much work to be done.
We're going to need a bigger boat.
Here's an interview with the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce where we talk more about this topic and the world of publishing.
When I got writing this post, I felt it was missing something. So I reached out to friends and asked for their favorite books on hope. Here are just a few of the many, many books for kids that offer glimpses of hope in difficult circumstances. Feel free to add to this list in the comments.
The Rough Patch by Brian Lies
LOVE by Matt de la Peña and Loren Long
The Knowing Book by Rebecca Kai Dotlich and Matthew Cordell
When You are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler
The Breaking News by Sara Lynne Reul
Swimmy by Leo Lionni
After the Fall by Dan Santat
Hooway for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester
When You Need Wings by Lita Judge
Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor and Rafael López A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz and Catia Chien Between Us and Abuela by Mitali Perkins and Sara Palacios At the Mountain's Base by Traci Sorell and Weshoyot Alvitre Brave Molly by Brooke Boynton Hughes The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson and Vanessa Brantley-Newton The Water Princess by Susan Verde, Georgie Badiel, Peter H. Reynolds The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, E.B. Lewis Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh Soccer Star by Mina Javaherbin, Renato Alarcao On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne & Vladimir Radunsky Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, Kadir Nelson
Hey Kiddo by Jarrett Krozosca
The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden
Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Mayday by Karen Harrington
Jazmin’s Notebook by Nikki Grimes
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor Courage for Beginners by Karen Harrington The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer
Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg
Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer
Stand Tall by Joan Bauer
Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai
One for the Murphy’s by Lynda Mullaly Hunt New Kid by Jerry Craft When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson, Omar Mohamed Let's Go Swimming on Doomsday by Natalie C. Anderson The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James by Ashley Herring Blake The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt
Pay Attention Carter Jones by Gary Schmidt Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya Refugee by Alan Gratz
Young Adult Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson Every Moment After by Joseph Moldover Internment by Samira Ahmed Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro American Street by Ibi Zoboi Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf