There’s a saying that is applied sometimes to writers: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Some writers are always exploring new territory, and others keep to their small bit of ground and find endless wealth there. I have said, when this comes up (it does, it does), that I must be a fox, since I’ve written about baseball and snakes and robots and mushrooms, but I say so uneasily, feeling that I am really a hedgehog and that my own favorite writers are also hedgehogs. I have always felt affinity for the spiny little bug-eaters, and moreover, I feel like I am that sort of writer, but haven’t realized what my One Big Thing is. I feel, too, that there is something I’ve been trying to get at in my books and that the plot is almost a distraction, and that my One Big Thing had something to do with family or feelings or coming of age.
It was much on my mind since reading the Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby books, and thinking about how Beverly Cleary knew her One Big Thing from the first chapter of her first book, when Henry finds a dog and wants to keep it. The discussion with his mother is about whether Henry is old enough to take care of a pet — he insists that he is, and sets up the entire series and its sequel series: they’re about kids who want to grow up, and the glorious, terrible journey of growing up itself. It’s at the heart of every book. The kids are aching to be bigger, and Cleary lets that single theme guide her through fifteen books, as well as the non-Klickitat Street books with human characters. One thing I was left with after reading those books was admiration for Saint Beverly of Yamhill for knowing her purpose so well from the get go, for having such a noble one, and for being so faithful to it. Perhaps the only writer who cultivated less ground for as rich a career is Bill Watterson.
But I, like Shel Silverstein’s Pacman-shaped hero, was in search of my missing piece.
Yesterday at the playground my son ran off to the water fountain to fill a gatorade bottle he’d found with water; he wanted to make mud pies. He sprinted on ahead of me and reached the fountain, couldn’t reach to fill the bottle, and was helped by an older boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old. It was terrific, how naturally this kid helped a littler kid, and it killed me to see it. He must be a big brother, I thought.
And I realized right then, that’s what it is. That’s my one big thing. I want kids to be good to each other. I feel like kids need to look out for each other, that the adults can’t be trusted. The great sadness of childhood is that kids spend their energy harming one another instead of helping; the greatest joys of childhood come from kindness. It’s not a moral lesson, it’s a life lesson. It’s not how to be good, it’s how to be happy. Be good to each other.
My favorite scenes in my books are kids being kind to other kids (usually siblings). It tears me up when I see it done nicely in other books. Ten books into my career, several more in drafts of varying state of completion, and I can see how each one has, at its heart, kids caring…. for adults, for animals, but mostly other kids (especially siblings). I also see how some of the unpublished ones, the parts I can’t let go of, are of the same cloth. The manuscripts I can let go of, don’t have that.
Now I know what I want to talk about when I go on school visits, and how to answer the question: why do you write?