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Coming to Story



June 3, 2024



by Leah Henderson, writing for children and young adults faculty

 


There are so many ways a writer can come to a story. You may stumble across a fascinating tidbit in a newspaper, hear an unforgettable song lyric, wander by an interesting spot, or it might come from a question or two. Basically, there are infinite places and ways stories can be born and for my latest project, an anthology I co-edited called A Little Bit Super: With Small Powers Come Big Problems, it all started with a mystery meat dinner. Actually, if I’m honest, it started even before that, with a packet at Spalding.

 

While working to complete my MFA, a Spalding faculty member encouraged me to consider turning a short story I had written into a longer work. And after many starts and stops, that project would become my debut middle grade novel, One Shadow on the Wall. In 2017, about two weeks before its release, I was asked to participate on a panel at a local literary conference. And to my excitement, the keynote speaker was someone whose work I had come to greatly admire.

 

Once dinnertime rolled around, I found myself seated right next to that person, Gary D. Schmidt! And while I’d like to think I was calm, cool, and collected in that moment, I wasn’t. First of all, I was sitting next to Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt, but even crazier than that, he had a copy of my debut novel and wanted me to sign it. And instead of talking about story process, marketing, or a million other engaging topics as dinner was served, I said, “What’s this?” referring to the suspicious-looking meat on our plates.

 

After some humorous back and forth and Gary warning me that a LOT of rubber chicken dinners were in my future, we talked about how wonderful it would be to have a superpower that could change our meal into something fabulous. And because I can never stop with the questions, I turned to Gary and asked, “If you really could have a little superpower, what would it be?”

 

And from there our minds went into overdrive with possibilities. How about always smelling good? Or being able to rewind time for three seconds? What if you could turn a part of your body invisible? The list went on and on, but for some reason, no one else at our table found our conversation quite that funny. It didn’t matter though, because we did. Then we thought about how cool it would be to have a book with a whole bunch of kiddos with minor superpowers. And once dessert arrived, Gary turned to me and said, “We should do this. We should write this book.” And while my eyes probably grew and my mouth definitely dropped open, he asked me the most amazing question of all, “What do you think?”

 

What do I think? Here I am having every worry in the world about the start of my career, and not making too many missteps, and this wonderful soul that I met less than an hour before is asking me to work on a project that has truly become one of the highlights in my writing journey. But this coming to story adventure doesn’t stop there. A few years later (because yes, books can take a long, long time at any stage), when the ink on the contract was dry and we had compiled a group of phenomenal contributors, some of the best middle-grade writers in the business—Pablo Cartaya, Nikki Grimes, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Remy Lai, Kyle Lukoff, Meg Medina, Daniel Nayeri, Linda Sue Park, Mitali Perkins, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Brian Young, and Ibi Zoboi—I realized with a huge gulp that along with editing these incredible stories with Gary, I would need to write a story of my own. All of a sudden, my brain went blank! I had nothing. Nada. Zilch. It was like I had forgotten how stories come to be.


But something wonderful and unexpected happened weeks before my story was due. I found myself at Spalding again, this time teaching at residency. My brain was still filled with tumbleweed when it came to creating my own story. But I kept trying to convince myself that if I was open to it, somehow, someway, a story would come. Then, along came my colleague, the fabulous Bruce Marshall Romans (another Spalding grad and a screenwriting faculty member). We were asked to pose for a few pictures. The photographer told us to act natural and have a conversation, and of course that is literally when every coherent thought escapes your brain! But it turned out to be the best possible thing. Bruce and I both scrambled for something to say. Suddenly I was open to any and everything—I didn’t care how ridiculous. We decided to tell each other something memorable about our week, and Bruce told me about this pitiful-looking enclosure in a pet store that simply broke his heart and had him texting friends asking if anyone was up for taking a guinea pig home. An interesting question. And when he showed me a picture he’d taken of the little enclosure with a 75% off sign on it, my brain sprang into action. My thoughts raced wild. I had just come to my story!  I had it—my idea. My kiddo would be able to feel the feels of all animals and understand them, but only on Tuesdays.

 

As writers, we sometimes feel we don’t have another idea, or another way into a story, essay, play, or poem. But being open to the possibility of where a tidbit, a lyric, an interesting spot, or a question might take us might just be what we need to find our story. Who knows, you might surprise yourself if you stay open to the possibility of anything . . . and keep coming back to Spalding for inspiration.

 


 

Leah Henderson is the author of many critically acclaimed books for young readers. Her books have been included on a number of Best Books lists, including the New York Public Library, Bank Street College, and the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature. Her titles include Your Voice, Your Vote; The Magic in Changing Your Stars; and The Courage of the Little Hummingbird. Leah has true wanderlust and when she is not creating stories, she is out in the world in search of them. 

 

 

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