Reflect for a moment on the special books that embody your childhood; those stories you still hold clearly in your mind, even if you haven’t picked them up for a reread in years.
I like to ask fellow book lovers what pivotal books they read as children or teenagers, because it’s often a window into who they are today – sometimes a window that I might not have glimpsed or understood without the shared love of reading.
I want to talk about the books that helped shape us, the stories and the characters that molded us (consciously or not) into the people and readers we are today.
First, I’ll give some personal examples of books I remember, both in an emotional sense and story-wise:
When the Road Ends (Jean Thesman), Protecting Marie (Kevin Henkes), The Giver (Lois Lowery), A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle), and Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine).
Now, some of these books don’t seem to have much in common other than a female protagonist (and The Giver has a male protagonist). What they do share is emotional depth – often heart-breaking and heart-wrenching depth, both highs and lows – and they tell difficult coming-of-age stories.† But what else made them so remarkable to my malleable brain? What captured my heart and still causes me to think fondly of them today? I would willingly re-read any of the above books, but why?
Ask yourself that question while thinking of the books that came to mind for you: ‡ Why were they so significant to your life?
Now that you have that in mind, flip those thoughts around to your writing.
This is not just an exercise in recalling childhood memories, but trying to capture for yourself the reasons for why and how those stories and characters resonated with you. You want your stories to have the same impact on your readers (I assume). If you’ve been working non-stop on your story it can be hard to step back and read it anew, but use whatever method you prefer to look at it with new eyes. Ask a friend who likes your story (or likes the kinds of stories you are writing) to tell you why they like it. Read it aloud and see if it still sounds as good as it did in your head.
With all that in mind, what do you need to change about the plot, about the conflict, about the characters, about character interaction, or the villain(s) to make it resonate (more) with your readers?
You don’t need to rewrite your favorite childhood story or even to write in the vein of those authors, but there’s a lot of value in examining just why our favorites inspired us. And just imagine, someday hearing from a reader about the impact you made on their life through your book.
† Like so many books aimed at youth (especially teenagers), none of these stories have normal or present parents in the midst of the story’s timeline, but there are adults in each book who are reliable, who care deeply for the protagonists, and who do their best to aid them through whatever situation they are going through.
‡ If you’re having trouble recalling even a single book from your childhood, think instead of what stories come to mind when you’re going through a time of great difficulty, or great joy. Perhaps you can’t remember the title or even the name of the character, but you admired them and still, secretly, want to be like them. Or if you didn’t have the chance to read as a child, I’m sure you have favorite childhood movies that will work as well for this exercise.