Stories Connect Us

By Joan Bauer

Dear Mrs. Bauer: My teacher says we have to write to a living author and I’m hoping that you qualify. Nobody gets fan mail like a children’s and young adult author. I’ve been writing novels for young readers for over twenty years. A good part of most days, I look out my studio window in Brooklyn and try to think like a kid. It’s a crazy thing when you, an adult, seek to find the voice of a young person. Not just voice, the voice of angst, hope, humor, resilience, despair, anger, irritation—all the emotions kids experience. Adults have these feelings, too.

Kids want what we want—to be loved and heard and cared for and celebrated and affirmed; to know there are people we can trust, no matter what. I try hard to create characters young readers will connect to. At a book signing, a girl said, “Mrs. Bauer: I just want to say—I always thought you’d be younger.” It took me a week to get over that, but once I did, I knew it was a compliment.

I well remember when I was a nervous new writer hiding in the teacher’s lounge of a school where I was about to speak. The principal’s voice blared over the loudspeaker: “Students, please make your way to the auditorium for our special assembly...” I looked at myself in the mirror and gulped. Me? An assembly?

“And let us not forget what happened last time,” she warned. “That behavior will not be tolerated.” Maybe I could hide in the stall. A knock on the door. The parent volunteer said, “Third-period assembly has the tough kids. We should get there first.” She was right about the tough kids. The thing was, I loved them!

It’s such a colossally challenging world, but young people need stories. When I visit schools, I embrace my inner Oprah and go into the audience with a mic, and oh, these kids love to build characters from thin air. What kind of family is this character from? What’s he good at? What’s her dream? What’s the hardest thing he’s facing right now? Sometimes they sit on the floor when we do this character development exercise. Sometimes I don’t always pay attention when I move through the crowd which explains the email I got from a student. Hi Mrs. Bauer: It’s me. The boy you stepped on. Remember?

Kids have stories packed inside them. Adults do, too. We are natural storytellers; it’s in our DNA. We meet at this beautiful threshold. Stories saved me when I was a young person. They gave me hope in the midst of my alcoholic dad’s struggles; they helped me see that people go through tough times and keep going. They gave me role models, like Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird; they made me laugh and cry and cheer. My grandmother was a professional storyteller and the greatest source of inspiration in my life. She always told me, “When you tell a story, always aim for the heart.”

I didn’t start out writing for young adults; I wanted to be a stand-up comic, a comedy writer, a screenwriter. I took a screenwriting course with the great Ann Loring at the New School, and was swept into her weekly Friday night screenwriters group that met in her East Side apartment. That’s where I learned the number one rule of writing: Write when you feel like it, and write when you don’t. That’s where one night, Ann raised an eyebrow and said to me, “I think your screenplay’s going to sell.”

She was right, almost. That screenplay was enough to get me a contract with a big New York talent agency. Four days after signing, however, I was in a car accident that injured my back and neck and required neurosurgery. I was a mother with a young child. My husband was wonderful, but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t sit at my desk.

Dreams have to adjust sometimes, but how do you change a dream so integral to who you are? In my early freelance days, I wrote magazine articles (for little money) on parenting. My desk was in the hall, and my baby Jean lay on a blanket on the floor next to me. When my writing was bad, I’d rip it out of the printer and hand it to her. “Bad paper,” I’d say as Jean ripped the paper to shreds. She had the soul of a writer.

My husband showed me a quote from Winston Churchill: Never, never, never give up. “Churchill had a staff of people,” I mentioned, “plus a war to focus on, plus the world was watching, and...” I lay in bed thinking about my grandmother. She never said, “I’m going to tell you a funny story,” she’d just tell a story and always found a way to poke fun at herself. She showed me the difference between laughter that hurts people and laughter that people can share. I wondered what she’d tell me now.

Who showed up with a message was Ellie, a fictional teenage character elbowing her way through my creative soul. I could almost hear her talking—crazy, I know—and thought, well, I’m recuperating from intense trauma, on pain killers, and having characters show up might be what happens. Ellie didn’t go away. She was all the things I’d lost. She was funny and confident; she had a big dream. Ellie was going for it.

I sat at my desk in so much pain; I could hardly stand it. But I began to write Ellie’s story, and as I did, I started to laugh. It was an amazing struggle, but I’m happy to say the laughter won. Ellie Morgan of Squashed put me on the long road back to wholeness. I learned to write young adult fiction, but I learned something deep about humor, too. It heals. Squashed won the Delacorte Prize for a First Young Adult Novel, and I was on my way.

I began to explore the well of teenage and middle-grade voices that surprisingly were inside me. Teachers were teaching my books, and awards were coming—the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature, the Golden Kite Award, the Newbery Honor Medal, a lovely parade of state honors, the ALA’s Schneider Family Book Prize, two Christopher Awards. I’ve written thirteen novels for young readers. My latest, Soar, might be my favorite. It’s about a boy with a heart defect who loves baseball, but can’t play the game. In the midst of a sports scandal, he steps forward to help a town and a team get back in the game.

I try to write with a mother’s heart, my grandmother’s hope, a young person’s passion, an eye out for teachable moments, and with all the truth that I can muster. I hope the result is that my books help kids find the hero they’ve got inside. When dark days come, I try to go back to that impossible time when everything hurt and laughter came in like fresh water to heal it.

New York Lifestyles is proud to announce Joan Bauer as a regular columnist starting in next month’s issue. She’ll be sharing everything and anything to do with books and reading.