My mom has always been a huge worrier. But when I think back to my childhood summers, what stands out is not the safeguards she imposed, but the astonishing freedom we had. I remember long segments of time that belonged exclusively to the under-ten crowd: our moms shared the vague understanding that we were “outside,” but they had no clue exactly where in the big world of outside we were at any given moment. We might be in someone’s backyard, under the watchful eye of one of those moms, but we were just as likely to be off on some grand adventure.
One of my favorite adventures was “riding around the block,” although technically it was much more than just a block. Each side of the square that my friends and I traveled had a favorite element. The first side was three blocks of homes, complete with other kids we knew from the school bus. The second side’s best feature was the pond where we caught tadpoles by the bucketful when they were in season. The third side bordered a farmer’s fields, and we loved to play castle high atop his haymows. The fourth side always required a second wind to start: the corner was anchored by the haunted house, and everyone knew you had to bike past that as fast as you possibly could. Once we dared slow down, we scanned the ditch with eagle eyes, always convinced we would once again find mysterious drying bones as we had on a previous journey.
There are many reasons—some of them sad and scary—that kids today don’t all share those long hours of unsupervised freedom from adult governance. But writers know that this can make it tough to ramp up the very element that an exciting story requires: risk-taking and the resulting consequences. Adults who write for children have learned to create clever ways to get the grown-ups out of the story (hence the astonishing number of orphans that litter the literary landscape). That way, kids can get themselves into, and out of, the kind of interesting trouble that makes us want to keep reading. But young writers, often being raised themselves in an always-supervised childhood, sometimes struggle to place their characters at risk. Which means their stories stagnate while their characters sit around staying safe.
Safety, I am here to tell you, is the bane of good story-writing. If you notice this trend emerging, give your young writers permission to introduce risk and danger—physical, emotional, tangible—into their stories. Help them brainstorm ways to get rid of the character’s cell phone. Help them imagine how their character, while not necessarily a bad kid, might still find him or herself in the kind of predicament their parents wish they’d stay far away from. Encourage them to push their character out of the backyard, and out from under the watchful eyes of Mom, and set them loose on an adventure of their own.
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