*A word of explanation: A few months ago, a teacher friend asked me for book recommendations for her daughter. I suggested Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi’s wonderful Spiderwick Chronicles. Yesterday in my mailbox at school, there appeared a delightful, handwritten note from the girl thanking me for telling her about the books, and sharing how much she loves them. I immediately wrote her a note in response (also hand-written, although not nearly as legible). But the more I thought about it, there was so much more I wanted to say to her, and to all children about a life full of stories. So, in true Christmas spirit, here’s my “Dear Virginia” letter below:
Thank you for your letter. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the Spiderwick Chronicles. It’s fun to get lost in another world, isn’t it? I love stories with creatures in them. In fact, I’m writing a whole bunch of books all about a boy who learns that the creatures from his favorite stories are real, and that a bad man is using these creatures for evil purposes, so, even though he feels completely unprepared to do so, he goes on a crazy journey to stop the bad man. And, man, are there creatures! There’s a giant sloth monster, a nasty little dwarf called a Redcap, a sleeping gargoyle, and even a monster I made up, which has the ability to control a whole bunch of other monsters with its mind. So, yeah. I love creatures too. Once you believe they’re real, they’re lots of fun to think about.
For awhile now, almost as long as I’ve been writing these stories, I’ve been asking myself why I landed on this as a concept to write about. Why creatures? Why stories?
And that, Virginia, is a very good question. Why stories?
I’ve been living in story-worlds since before I knew that’s what I was doing. It’s the best kind of brainwashing. Me tucked in beside my parents, feeling their slow, steady breathing, hearing the words unspool out of them like a silk handkerchief from a magician’s pocket, the story unfolding in its own equally graceful way. The slow beginning – meeting new people, exploring new worlds – getting into trouble, fearing the worst, then, the slow rising to a thunderous crescendo as good battles evil, characters face their deepest, darkest fears, and lives change forever. Then, the story ends, and the best part begins. The anticipation of another story.
I confess, Virginia, I’m a story junkie. Walking through bookstores is like walking through a candy store must be for you: the covers are like gleaming mounds of frosting, the titles like drizzles of chocolate, the action like butterscotch discs, chocolate kisses, peppermint sticks. To be limited to choosing to buy only one is agony. Two is always better.
But here’s what’s really exciting about stories, Virginia: they matter. One day, I realized this whole story business isn’t a selfish endeavor; it’s not a fruitless pursuit only for those who would rather live in their own imaginations than in the “real world,” perhaps because they’re too cowardly, or mousy, or some such nonsense, to face up to the hard truth of reality.
Stories are life. They are part of our spiritual core. Why do I say that? Think about the stuff that really matters – wondering what my place is in the universe, why I was put here; what makes me different from all these other billions of souls on this planet; am I capable of love, of violence; what of forgiveness, redemption? (Yeah, the Big Stuff.)
Stories takes us there, and a person who has full access to her imagination, who can live in her own world and the world of stories, is never at risk of becoming that sad soul who believes that the material reality is all there is. You know, one who looks up at the stars and sees only gas and light, millions of miles away. I’ve met folks like that. Often, they shake their head when I tell them I’m writing a story about monsters, as if to say, “Why don’t you write about things that matter?” If you’ve lived in stories, you know this about stars – following the second star to the right and heading straight on to morning can take you to a place where boys never grow up. You know the sword can be pulled from the stone, the One Ring can make you invisible – but will also begin to eat away at your soul – that there are potions that shrink, elevators that fly, wardrobes that lead to permanent winter, and dwarfs, naiads, unicorns, golden fleeces, and a whole bunch of dwarfs. Are they real? Well, if you have to ask that, you’re missing the point.
So, Virginia, read on, and on, and on. I wish you days of living with one foot planted in the “real world,” and another planted in the world of a story. I wish you a drowsy, dreamy existence where all things are possible, but most of all, hope. And, I wish for you that this series of fantastic stories leads you to another one, and another, and like following a trail of breadcrumbs home, you eventually emerge from this journey at the doorstep of the great house of the One Storyteller, from whom all imagination, all wonder emanates.