Our imaginations are like living organisms. They require food. Depending on what they are fed, they can be healthy, sleek and plump, or they can be racked with disease, emaciated, dying. Books and stories are the food that our imaginations live on. What we feed it affects our minds, our souls, and our lives.
No parent would dream of feeding their child on a steady diet of deep-fried Twinkies. The idea is laughable. And yet the majority of parents in America are feeding their children’s imaginations on the literary equivalent of just that. Most (not all) of the modern books for kids – especially in the middle school range – are absolute junk. And yet parents, teachers and librarians encourage it. “It may not be the best,” they say, shrugging, “but at least they’re eating something.”
It’s better to eat nothing at all than to eat something that will kill you.
Because the fact is, bad books are usually not only fluff. They’re like cotton candy that’s laced with poison. I’ve noticed that in junk-books, there are vicious lies threaded all throughout the story. Lies like “little kids are an aggravation”, “parents are idiots”, “old people are boring and useless.” Ideas like irresponsibility, cowardice, apathy, and disrespect are the themes of those books 9 times out of 10. This is poison. Resolve to never, ever let your child (or grandchild, or students) read anything that contains lies and wrong messages. Resolve never to let yourself read anything like this either, especially if you’re a writer. After all, if your own imagination is weak and sick, you won’t be able to inspire or feed others anything worthwhile.
On the other end of the spectrum are purely “moral” stories which contain a moral…and very little else. If fluff books are like deep-fried Twinkies, “moral” stories, just as such, are like plain boiled broccoli. Often there’s no real story line, the characters are weak and undeveloped, and the writing style is unimaginative. I read many books like this as a little girl. And though the whole goal of the “moral” story was to build my character, I don’t think that I was ever permanently affected by any of those types of stories. The ones that stuck with me and changed my life were ones that didn’t profess to be purely moral stories at all.
Truly good stories are not fluff, and they don’t celebrate evil. But neither are they a hard, cold moral with a flimsy story wrapped around it. They are something else entirely. A great writer starts off with a true worldview and a healthy imagination (which comes from reading good stories). When she sits down to write a story, she makes certain that it’s a good one: worth writing and worth reading. Then she writes it with all her heart. She works hard, writing and rewriting, making sure that it’s top notch, the best she can possibly create. Excellence is how to avoid the extremes of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and How Joey Learned to Be Kind. It strives for the best possible story as well as the best possible message.
As every professional chef knows, it’s not enough to put some healthy ingredients on a plate. Taste, complexity, depth of flavor, and presentation are vital – without these, you can’t tempt the appetite. This is how we should approach books, whether as the author or the reader. (A list of my favorite story-feasts is on the page “Book Lists”, found in the top right corner of my blog.) We should approach stories like Julia Child approached food – with a demand for and an intense enjoyment of excellence.
My goal is to prepare a literary feast for my readers. I want the smell, the texture and the flavor of the meals I serve to be simply mouth-watering. I want the ingredients to be real, wholesome, and satisfying. My hope is that the young minds and imaginations that I’ve fed will never again be satisfied with junk food or boiled vegetables. They’ll search out books that are deep and real and wonderful, that stick to their ribs like mashed potatoes and roast beef. Maybe one day they’ll even become a master chef themselves.