It might be all fun and games for the characters in my latest story, The Time Travel Situation, but for me this all serious work!
Actually, no, there’s been some genuine fun in writing this piece for me, but I have also covered a few important principles while working on the story, and now it’s time to review what all of those were.
The Work of Children)
Fred Rogers once said “play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” I absolutely believe that this is true. As a child, everything in the world is new. New sights, new people, new emotions, and new ideas. And all these new things must be processed. They must be worked over and understood, they must be laid out alongside of one another to understand all of their joint implications.
Watch a child playing pretend and you will inevitably see ideas and words and feelings that recently made an impression on them crop into their narrative, working their way through the child’s mind and words, until at last the child feels he or she has a bit more of a grasp on the matters.
This is why I started off this whole series by stating that there are no rules in the play of children. There are no necessary elements of plot structure or character arc or anything else we typically expect in a story. Because children aren’t really telling a story, they are trying to have an experience.
And I tried to make this a guiding principle of The Time Travel Situation. While I did give it enough structure that it could still appeal to more mature audiences, I was careful to preserve the sense of children just wanting to explore all the many different things that fascinate them. Thus the story is full of sensory, exploratory, free-flowing fun.
Something Old, Something New)
And to be true to that sense of children working out all the new things that interest them, I had the children make references to real-world media and history. It just wouldn’t have felt authentic to me if the shows and games they were experiencing weren’t bleeding into their playing pretend.
I explained that I didn’t want to overdo the real-world media references, though. Just a quick comment about Star Trek, a quote from Star Wars, and the opening premise of The Journeyman Project. I didn’t want this story to be a vehicle for homages to media, I wanted the references to only be a garnish to the more original narrative I had to tell.
But more prominent than these media references have been the historical ones. For example I have made Blackbeard a central character, a true-to-life pirate that we can read history books about. But I actually made a conscious decision to not go and look up details from the actual history of Edward Teach (Blackbeard’s real name), because I wanted him to be a work of childlike imagination. He’s larger than life, the way a child thinks a pirate should be. The children know absolutely nothing about what he actually was or when and how he died. All they really know is his name and career choice, and the rest for them is pure imagination. I wanted the story to reflect that same blissful ignorance.
A Rush of Ideas)
I also mentioned how these real-world references were part of how I made different worlds overlap in my story. There is the world of the children, their world of pretend, and the worlds of the historical and media figures they reference. Part of the reason for having so many intersecting realms goes back to that notion of children trying to make sense of their reality and playfully combining them to explore their full implications. I wanted the story to show that the children had a lot of different things on their mind. They are thinking about things that interest them, they are trying to explore relationships, they are trying to find an adventure in life that is exciting. All of those themes come out in the things they give voice to while at play.
But naturally this led to a deluge of different elements, and I was anxious about it becoming overwhelming. I wanted it to be indulgent, but not to the point of excess. My hope is that audiences will be able to flow along with the rapid-fire conversations in the same way that one does when having a conversation with a friend. You shift from one topic to another effortlessly, shifting from work to family to personal interests on a whim. It may be chaotic and all-over-the-place, but you still leave feeling satisfied. Because you and your friend weren’t worried about turning your conversation into a three-act story, you were just trying to get a sense of yourselves across.
In my story I want it to be the same. Yes there is some character development, such as with Blackbeard’s change of heart, but mostly I just wanted to have a conversation with you about these kids and try to give you a sense of them through it.
Last of all I spoke about stories where the hero needs to surmount the villain, but also needs to retain their honor to the end. I put the children in a compromising situation, one where they had an unacceptable deal setup with Blackbeard. But I couldn’t just have them break their promise or else they would lose their dignity. Therefore it was important to have Blackbeard break the terms first so that they children could be released from their end of the bargain as well.
And originally my intent was for the children to now trick Blackbeard into his own demise, but I realized that that would still feel dishonorable. So instead I allowed Blackbeard to see the error of his ways and genuinely join the children’s cause. This should allow us to enter the conclusion with an air of positivity where everyone’s honor has been preserved.
Now all that remains is to finish the thing! Come back on Thursday as we’ll do exactly that, after which we’ll be on to something different.
“You distract the dinosaur!” Mavis shouted to Patrick as they tore through the undergrowth. “I’ll circle back and fix the Time Capsule!”
Mavis peeled to the side and ducked behind a rocky outcropping, waiting for the T-Rex and Patrick to pass him by before racing back to the Time Capsule.
“It looked like it bit through the Stabilizer Array,” he muttered to himself as he came upon the scene. “Probably blew all the gaskets! I can replace those from the Fabricator, but I’ll have to come up with something custom to replace the Levelling Detection….I just don’t know if I have enough time!”
Ellie stumbled through the bushes and right into the path of the enemy patrol.
“Oh no!” she shouted, then turned and bolted back the way she came.
“After her!” the leader of the patrol shouted and they all rushed over the same bush she had disappeared behind. No sooner did they do so than they fell down a massive ravine to their deaths!
“Nicely done,” Chase’s head popped out from one of the bushes on the edge of the cliff.
“Thanks,” Ellie smiled as she popped out from a bush on the other side.
“What are you two happy about?” Nell huffed next to Chase. “We’ve only taken care of half your mess. I’m sure they already radioed to their base that we’re here, so now they’ll be on high alert at their base. They’re just waiting for us to invade!”
“Well then maybe we use that to our advantage,” Chase looked thoughtfully to a nearby mountain top.
“What?” Nell scrunched her nose.
He sighed and pointed out the cliff directly above the enemy base and the massive boulder that was lingering at the edge of that very cliff.
“If they’re looking for us down below, they won’t be watching up above. They won’t see us dropping that big, old rock right on top of them!”
“That seems…too convenient…” Nell shook her head.
“I like it!” Ellie said, and she traipsed off with Chase to start climbing the mountain. Outvoted on the matter of plot contrivance Nell followed with a sigh.
Mavis moved his hands like a concert pianist. He grabbed and placed and bolted and snapped and fused and sheathed and twisted with the speed of an expert in a panic. Every now and then he glanced up to the sky, watching the fiery streak that illuminated the cloudless sky. Every minute the meteor seemed a little bigger, a little lower towards Earth. He could almost feel the heat coming off of it!
If Chase, Ellie, and Nell took care of their part of the mission then that meteor would wipe out everything still tied to this timeline in a matter of minutes. Mavis’s hands started moving even faster!
“Come on, Patrick, get back here! I need your help!”
Up above Chase and Ellie and Nell clung to the side of the cliff, climbing as quickly as they could to the summit.
“That meteor is getting closer!” Ellie said, a slight tinge of panic in her voice.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it up there in time,” Nell concurred.
As if matters weren’t bad enough, Chase’s next step dislodged a loose stone, which frightened a flock of pterodactyls roosting down below. With ear-splitting screeches the massive creatures swooped up towards the children, threatening to dash them off the mountainside.
“Hang on!” Chase called. “I’ve got an idea!”
“Ohhhh no,” Ellie shook her head. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!”
“Hyah!” Chase shouted, flinging himself off the rock wall and onto the back of the nearest pterodactyl! The creature squawked in surprise and flapped wildly, trying to knock its hijacker off.
“Oh no you don’t!” Chase snarled, wrapping his arms around the creature’s neck and hauling upwards, slowly steering it towards the top of the cliff and away from the other attacking pterodactyls. “Ha! Look at that!” he called to the girls down below. “Two birds with one stone.”
“Two pterodactyls, don’t you mean?” Ellie grinned, then swallowed her fears and leaped onto the next flying reptile to pass by!
“Hey, wait for me!” Nell followed suit.
Mavis leaped into the air and grabbed hold of a support beam in the roof of the Time Capsule. He swung his other arm to swap a fresh power cell in place of the damaged one while his legs pumped wildly, keeping himself aloft.
“Patrick, where are you?!” he roared yet again.
As if on cue Patrick’s head came bobbing into view just above the tree-line. Mavis stared in amazement as the same T-Rex from before came charging into the clearing, Patrick perched triumphantly on its head, steering it from a harness made of vines and–
“Nope, nope, nope!” Nell shook her head, hopped down from her swing, and folded her arms.
“What?” Patrick asked innocently, still holding his heroic pose on top of the slide.
“There is no way you captured and tamed a T-Rex in the last fifteen minutes.”
“Oh you’re one to talk! You’re riding a pterodactyl up a mountain!”
“That wasn’t my choice. These two–” she gestured to Ellie and Chase, “have absolutely no sense of reality.”
“C’mon Nell, we’re traveling through time,” Mavis sighed. “This doesn’t have anything to do with reality.”
Nell threw her hands up in exasperation, but clambered back into her swing and started pumping into the air. “Well I say ‘Are you two ready to jump off?!'”
“You don’t have to say that you say it,” Ellie reminded. “Just say it! And yeah! Get ready, it’s going to be a rough landing!”
The three flyers launched off their steeds and skidded onto the top of the cliff.
“Alright!” Chase crowed. “Let’s shove the boulder over!”
The three of them sprinted to the behemoth and pressed against it with all their might. Looking up they could see the meteor looming as large as the sun in the sky. It was near enough to make out the mile-high flames scorching its surface. Near enough to feel the weight of it bearing down on them.
“PUUUUSH!” Nell strained.
“Patrick, watch where you’re stomping!” Mavis ordered. “I barely have the Time Capsule put back together!”
“I’m trying…but…this guy isn’t following orders,” Patrick called down from his perch. “I said, go right!” Patrick gave the reins a sharp tug, eliciting a deep snarl from the beast. “Easy boy, easy!” Patrick tried to soothe, but the T-Rex wasn’t having it any more. With a particularly mighty roar it shook itself vigorously until Patrick was dislodged and fell to the creature’s feet.
“I thought we had an understanding!” Patrick said indignantly, but the T-Rex just bared his teeth and snarled.
“Uh-oh!” Mavis squeaked.
“We’re too late!” Ellie pointed to the enemy base down below. A hatch had opened in its ceiling and a massive cannon emerged, pointed directly for the approaching meteor. The coils at the back of the cannon hummed and glowed as a fire started to glow at the bottom of its barrel.
“Just focus!” Chase ordered. “Rock it back…and PUSH!” All three of them shoved in unison. The rock resisted their force for a moment, but finally gave way! With a great crumbling sound it went careening down the side of the cliff, bounced off the rocky wall once, twice, then spun through the air on a direct collision course for the base below. Already the gun had charged, though, and it fired its molten blast into the air…and into the falling boulder! The rock had intercepted the blast just in time, and now the rock burst into a million pieces of shrapnel!
Some of those shards pounded back down into the enemy base, tearing it to shreds, and some of them flew out sideways, pelting over the treetops and punching through the T-Rex that was menacing Patrick and Mavis. It fell to the ground, mere inches from crushing the Time Capsule again.
“You guys better get here!” Mavis shouted as he started punching numbers into the command panel.
“We’re coming! We’re coming!” Ellie shouted back, looking over her shoulder as the meteor broke through the atmosphere and scorched the clouds. Their three pterodactyl-steeds came wheeling back to them from that direction, frantic to outstrip the specter of doom! Ellie, Chase, and Nell leaped onto the lizards’ backs, steered them straight for the nearby clearing, and tumbled off at the entrance to the Time Capsule.
“This isn’t going to work!” Nell looked incredulously at the extensive damage still strewn throughout the Time Capsule.
“She’ll hold together,” Mavis snapped back as the last of the children entered the machine.
“We’d have a better chance surviving the meteor than a time jump in this heap of junk!”
“Never tell me the odds!” Mavis punched the button.
“Hey!” Nell cried as she the Time Capsule lurched to life, knocking her to her feet. “I wasn’t ready, you scoundrel!”
“Scoundrel?” Mavis smiled slyly as he helped lift her back to her feet. “I like the sound of that…”
Nell scoffed and turned away. “You’re a moron.”
“I know,” he sighed.
“Quiet, you guys,” Patrick said in awe. “Look!”
The rest of them followed his gaze through the nearest porthole. All of them watched as the meteor impacted on the ground, kicking up a tremendous wave of dirt and fire, and flinging dinosaurs violently through the air! The ripple of destruction broke right on top of them, but they weren’t smashed to bits. All the rock, and dirt, and dinosaur washed over them without making a single dent, for the Time Capsule had already untethered from the time of that place and was picking up pace to leave it behind as a distant memory.
Patrick hung his head sadly.
“I can’t believe we just let that happen,” he sighed. “We were there, man. We saw them: dinosaurs! They were going to be spared and we just let them die.”
“You know it was the right thing to do,” Ellie patted his shoulder reassuringly. “It’s our mission to keep time on its predefined course, not to–ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! PATRICK, WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?!”
She leaped back quickly from the boy, startled by whatever she had just seen. As soon as she was out of the way the other children could see what had set her off. The head of a baby raptor had just popped out from Patrick’s shirt pocket, and now the lizard was trying to wriggle all the way out as the boy vainly tried to shield it from view.
“N-n-nothing to see here,” Patrick stammered, poking at the baby again, only to get a nasty bite on his finger in return. “Ouch!”
“Patrick!” Mavis said accusingly. “What did Ellie just get done saying? We can’t change time!”
“I haven’t!” Patrick insisted. “Look, this baby was there when the meteor hit, right? So what do you think happened to it? It died! It was taken out of the picture. Well now it’s still out of the picture, I’ve just taken it out another way, that’s all.”
“You can’t just bring a foreign element into your home like that!” Nell exclaimed. “You have no idea what it’s bringing along with it!”
“Oh come on. It’s just this one, little guy. I didn’t bring anything else with us.”
As if on cue a slow, trilling sound came from the storage bay. Next the sound of claws tapping on the tile floor as three adult raptors sauntered into view.
“Oh…” Patrick said. “Unless it’s pack saw me take it and followed us here…”
“PATRICK!!” all the other children said in exasperation.
But there was no more time for discussion. Just then the raptors caught sight of the baby and leaped furiously after it! All the other children dove to intercept them before they tore Patrick to shreds! What followed was pure chaos. Chairs were thrown, panels were smashed, and wires were stripped out of the walls! Jaws snapped at ankles and make-shift lassos tossed in every direction. Everyone was both pursuer and pursued at the same time, no one stayed still for even a second.
And during it all the Time Capsule churned faithfully on. Millennia after millennia passed, century after century, decade after decade. Now the blur of rising and setting suns slowed and the moon rose over a stormy night, its light reflected on the world’s largest mirror: the Pacific Ocean! A massive thunder cloud in the east rushed onto the scene like smoke in a jar until it filled the entire horizon.
Time slowed down still further. The waves settled into a tumultuous rolling and the storm became a single, solid gale. Details that were imperceptible before became clear, such as daggers of lightning that stabbed in the heart of the storm and rain that streaked sideways over the sea.
And in this world of sea and storm there loomed a single witness: an old ship. Its sails were straining away from the storm, but still the water spilled over its deck and threated to sink the entire thing at any moment. And it was upon this doomed vessel that the Time Capsule came to rest, silently perching itself at the very back where none of the sailors would notice it amidst the chaos.
On Monday I spoke about the use of real-world references in a fictional story. I shared a few examples of how they can be utilized in a way that fits the flow of the tale and doesn’t break the fourth wall. One of the situations I illustrated was when referencing a piece of media that the audience is already familiar with, and how that can be used as a shorthand for understanding between reader and character.
In today’s post I wanted to briefly touch on Mavis’s crush for Nell, and I realized I could have him quoting Han Solo’s lines to Leia. The audience would hopefully recognize the words, realize he is viewing the two of them in the same context, and thus trying to hit on her. It all comes to a head where the “I love you,” “I know” line is flipped to her insulting him and his accepting the defeat. Clearly this joke wouldn’t have worked if I had not used a reference that the audience was already familiar with.
Another thing that I tried in this story was to intersperse multiple scenes into one. In the first case I was doing this by having the real world impinge on the fantasy one, such as when we see the kids on the swings and slide. That is not all, though, I also had that moment where the exploding rock reached from one scene with Chase, Nell, and Ellie over to the scene with Patrick and Mavis.
I want to take a little more time to consider separate scenes that overlap with one another, how they have been used in other stories, and how they can be used to add complexity to a story. Come back on Monday as we discuss that, and then again on Thursday for the next chapter in The Time Travel Situation.
When I was young my siblings and I loved playing pretend. Obviously we were far from the only children to do this, playing pretend is something that every child seems to come up with entirely on their own. In fact it is the most universal form of play I know of. Across all cultures and all periods of time, children just gravitate to it naturally and independently
I believe that part of the reason why pretend comes so naturally to children is because they still half-believe in it all. Half of the time they aren’t trying to invent anything new, they are just processing what they think might actually be.
I remember in one of our games I was shot by the bad-guys and I appropriately collapsed dead to the ground. I waited a few moments, then promptly rose back to my feet, explaining that I had been “good enough” that I couldn’t actually die. And I wasn’t trying to make something up…I genuinely believed that if one did enough good things then they became immortal in real life. I don’t know where I got that idea. Perhaps from the story of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, perhaps from films where the hero is never as dead as he appears, but the point is that when I was younger life seemed more fantastic. Anything might actually exist out there if you went looking in the right place. In another of our escapades I wanted to play a character named Cordinial Fasmuch. That was a strange name, so I decided he was from Spain. Because, you know, Spain was so far away that who even knew what sort of names they might have over there?
It is a sad irony that our curiosity so often propels us to gain a volume of information, until eventually we stop believing that there are things we still don’t know. And once we stop wondering what is out there our imagination plummets.
Playing pretend also leads into some incredibly original material. I remember with my siblings how we mashed up genres and ideas in ways that I still haven’t seen anywhere elsewhere. I’m reminded of one piece we did in a medieval setting with a small robot that helped thwart an evil wizard until it vanished at the end. Everyone was sad, but the robot had to go away because it was time for him to be born as the princess’s new baby.
You know, as medieval robots are wont to do.
Like I said, the world was a strange and mysterious place where anything was conceivable. There were no boundaries on logic or genre and there weren’t any rules against reincarnating robots in a medieval setting. Similarly there weren’t any rules on plot structure. We didn’t waste any time worrying about whether our playtime constituted a “good story” or not, we just played.
I remember a western we did where an outlaw came to settle a score with the sheriff in town. Eventually the revelation was made that the outlaw was actually a former sheriff himself, and the sheriff was once a former outlaw. And that former-outlaw had killed the family of the former-sheriff, sending the grieving man into a quest for vengeance, resorting to any measures to exact his revenge, even breaking all the laws he had once worked to uphold. And the former-outlaw was made so afraid by this specter of retribution that he had hidden himself in the most unlikely of places imaginable: law-keeping. Thus the two had completely traded sides.
Today I would say that the plot was preposterous, with character shifts that were completely unbelievable. But at the time I never considered it. It was an interesting idea, so who cared how much suspension of disbelief was required to make it work? Back then plots were weightless, all you had to do was think of them and that was enough.
Eventually our “plays” started to shift. They were still imaginative, but they starting to be inspired more and more by the imagination of others. We adhered more closely to the genre boundaries of our favorite books and movies. We still played as knights and robots, but not in the same story. We still wielded the power of magic and science, but not at the same time. Characters that died didn’t just pop back up if they had done enough good deeds in their life. Plots were expected to adhere to a three act structure, with believable character transitions throughout.
At this point we discovered a new reason for creating stories: to help process other ones that we already enjoyed. Whenever an intriguing new book or movie came along the experience wasn’t complete until we had invented our own narrative in that same world. Harry Potter and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings were cool to watch and read about, but that wasn’t enough. We wanted to be inserted into those worlds. We wanted to experience them and make them our own. Thus our imagination was spent in crafting branches on other peoples’ trees more than in planting new trees of our own.
And this pattern generally continues for us as we grow older. We become more dependent upon the structures of others until we hardly know how to play pretend without them. A craving for that old playtime develops, though, and entire entertainment industries and cultures now cater to that desire. Video games, board games, and tabletop games. Fan conventions, cosplay, and live-action-role-play. Theme parks, and movie theaters, and historic recreations. All of these try in their own way to insert us into a different world, but they are merely crutches, still structured for us to experience someone else’s creativity and not to create our own. As adults we push buttons, roll dice, and change our speech patterns to imitate other characters, but when we were children we actually became the things we pretended.
Back to Pooh Corner)
It is a commonly asked question whether we can ever find our way back to that state of free-flowing creativity. Can adults ever relearn how to play as a child, or is their wealth of knowledge too great an obstacle to overcome? Kenny Loggins sung about this conundrum in his song Return to Pooh Corner and Robin Williams faced the same problem in the movie Hook.
In my experience it is possible to return to the land of pure pretend, but it isn’t always easy. You might be at a disadvantage, but that just means it takes extra effort. With regular exercise one really does get better and better at starting the flow of imagination. One of the best methods for easing back in is to join small children in their own games. With children you can blurt out the first idea that comes to mind, like a medieval robot being reincarnated as a baby, and they accept it without judgment. With children you can stop worrying about if you’re doing it right and just do it.
In any case, we should take comfort in the fact that creativity is a fundamental part of us. It may ebb and flow, but it never truly dies.
With my next piece I’m going to try and recapture the magic of children just playing pretend. I want to write a story that is as free and uninhibited as real children at play. Come back on Thursday to see how it goes!
My first story in this series was Shade. Here we met a hero who was fighting a losing battle, trying to keep a community safe from an unstoppable horde. Further compounding things was his connection to a former friend, which friend was controlled by the leader of that same unstoppable horde. In the end that hero sacrificed himself to free his friend, which friend then inherited the burden of defending the community.
The idea for this story was directly tied to the duty of fatherhood, and how a man must be willing to do all things for his wayward children, even lay down his life to reclaim them. But then I decided to take that initial thought, and run with in an entirely different way.
In The Last Duty, we met a character that was more explicitly the father of a wayward son. The story found with him having a conversation with a former-ruler, who also thought of himself as the father of a wayward people. The two men commiserate over their shared frustrations, and wonder aloud what a father is to do with a child that becomes a monster. Instead of dying to save them, as in Shade, they instead decide to destroy those children, and thus smother the evil that they have inadvertently sired.
A darker tale to be sure, and one that contradicts the themes of the first. Each story is like a different side in a debate, disputing with one another the proper duty of fathers to wayward children. The fact that I wrote out both sides of these arguments does not mean that I advocate for each. More so I just wanted to build up the entire spectrum of opinion around me, so that I could lay within and consider their virtues and follies.
I didn’t set up this narrative debate just for kicks and giggles, though, I was using it for some very serious contemplation. I am a Christian, and have always been given pause by the dual representation of God in the Holy Bible. In the Old Testament he seems to be a very angry father, one who is quick to punish wayward children. But then in the New Testament Jesus teaches about a God of love, who wants to save the sinner.
Is it possible that the raging and the loving God can exist as the same person? Is there a proper time for one type of fatherly duty, and a proper time for another? The debate goes on in me, but it has been helped by these stories that I have written.
As I wrote these stories, I considered another concept that intersected with this debate. It was that of responsibility, of how power is so easily misused, that at times the greatest use of it is in not using it. It is an idea expressed very eloquently in Schindler’s List. In this film Oskar Schindler tells Amon Goeth the following:
Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t… That’s what the Emperor said. A man stole something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for mercy, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go… That’s power, Amon. That is power.
Going back to the Holy Bible, one is deeply moved by the account of Jesus hung on the cross, endowed with enough power to zap every Roman soldier to smithereens. But instead, he quietly restrains himself and says “Father forgive them.”
So now I wanted to examine this concept from various angles, too. I wanted to consider the appropriate use of one’s power, of how one chooses between condemnation and pardon.
As I mentioned a week ago, my original intent with The Toymaker was to write about a god that is trapped in a mortal frame. He was supposed to discover the tremendous power locked within him, and would then decide in which way to use it. Either he would condemn the evil he saw all about him, or he would find a way to benevolently forgive them.
That story changed in the course of writing it, though. He ended up only discovering a small sliver of his powers, and is never faced with the choice of destroying his people. He does, however, come to a different choice regarding his powers. He tracks down an old friend, and he wishes to heal her. He wants to make her whole, so that they can return to a dream that he has fervently held to.
But she asks him not to.
She cannot bear to have her scars so flippantly smoothed over, she feels that that would be disingenuous. In the end he respects her wishes, and instead embraces her brokenness. I thought this was a very interesting way to examine the nature of power. It wasn’t him turning down the power of vengeance and choosing to forgive, now it was him turning down the power of healing and choosing to accept someone broken. It was bittersweet, and it resonated very deeply with me. This, too, has very strong biblical themes. So much of the appeal of Jesus Christ is that he endured our pain, and therefore is able to sit with us in our broken places.
So thus far we have considered fathers that save, fathers that condemn, and fathers that empathize. We have looked at duty, responsibility, power, and ownership. Stories have this remarkable ability to let us plumb the depths of our hearts, and really consider a notion from every angle. We write in order to think out loud, to try the words and see if they taste right or not. If a concept confuses you, trying writing a story about it, and see if it starts to make more sense.
There still remains one more facet of these themes that I wish to explore, though. We often say that power corrupts, but with power comes responsibility, and responsibility has the ability to purify. Thus could not power be a vehicle for good, and not just evil? And going back to the idea of fatherhood, does one not become a father via the acceptance of power and responsibility?
Therefore I am going to write one more short story, one that opens with a selfish and petty man, who happens to be granted immense power. I will try to fashion the story into a process of purification for the man, and I will see if the idea is able to stick or not. This will conclude my multi-angled study of power, responsibility, duty, and fatherhood. Come back on Thursday to see the first chapter.
One fine Summer day Phillip the Mouse was outside stacking some blocks on the ground. He was so busy trying to build it as high as possible that he didn’t notice when Baxter, the local bully, came over by his side. “Hey, watch out!” Baxter shouted, and then he punched the tower apart with a laugh. All the blocks went flying and one of them hit Phillip right on the nose. Phillip was both surprised and hurt, and before he knew it he was sitting back on the ground crying. Baxter looked a little uncomfortable about that, but he shook his head and said, “Why are you screwing your face up like that? It makes you look all ugly!” Then he stomped away.
Phillip felt very self-conscious and ashamed. He tried to stop crying but it was very hard. He didn’t want to just sit there and look ugly, so he thought of what he could do. Suddenly he had what seemed to be a wonderful idea. Without a word he stood up and rushed into his house. He found some paper and string, markers and glue, and he set to work making a mask. He made a beautiful mouse-face and drew the biggest smile on it that he could. It looked perfect. He tied it on and decided to wear it forever.
Later that day Phillip’s mother came home and gave him a big hug. She smiled at his mask and asked him how his day was.
“It was great!” Phillip tried to say enthusiastically, but there was a little shake in his voice.
“Are you sure?” she asked compassionately. Phillip wasn’t sure why, but there was something about her soft voice that made him feel his sadness growing behind the mask.
“It was okay,” Phillip said, and wet tears were starting to show through the paper of the mask.
“Phillip, can you please take your mask off?” she asked.
Phillip shook his head and stepped back. “It’s a good mask,” he said. “It’s always happy and handsome, it never scrunches up or cries.”
“Phillip,” she said gently. “I like your real face more, I’d always rather see that.”
“Even if it’s ugly and crying?”
“Always,” she said firmly.
Phillip slowly took the mask away and his Mommy saw how sad he really was. She gave him a hug and just held him for a while. Then he told her about what had happened with the blocks and Baxter. That made him cry even more and she held him for all of that, too.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you today, Phillip,” she told him. “Thank you for telling me, that was a very brave thing to do. Phillip…I want you to always remember that you never need to be ashamed of your tears. Your face is the most beautiful thing I know and always will be.”
And with that, Phillip smiled. A real one this time.
Phillip the Mouse and His Grandfather’s Kite
One gray and windy day Phillip was feeling confused. His parents had told him that his grandfather was very sick, and that he might not get better. Phillip didn’t understand this. Every time Phillip got ill his parents just gave him rest and maybe some medicine and then he felt better soon enough. Why was it different with grandfather? Phillip’s parents said it had to do with being very old, and that grandfather might need to leave them, which was also confusing to Phillip. Phillip didn’t want his grandfather to leave them.
All of this had made Phillip think about a fine kite that he had made with his grandfather just last summer. They had decided to make it on a blustery day like today, but by the time the glue set the wind had died down and they hadn’t been able to fly it. Phillip’s grandfather had said he would come back another time to fly it with Phillip, but that day had never come. And so, Phillip now decided he had to fly it by himself. For some reason that seemed like a good thing to do with this concerning news from his parents.
Phillip went outside with his kite and soon he had it soaring through the air. It really was a very good kite. It caught the wind easily and held its position very straight and strong. Phillip never had problems with it swirling down or crashing into the ground. As Phillip continued to fly it the wind started to become even stronger. Soon he could feel the kite pulling hard against the reel in his hands. He gripped it tightly, and decided he better pull the line in before the wind picked up anymore. Phillips started turning the reel, pulling the line down as a sudden gust of wind came, pulling the line up.
The string broke in two and it tumbled lifelessly to the ground at Phillip’s feet. Phillip stared down at it for a moment, then back up to the kite. He expected the kite to fall as well, but it didn’t. It swayed around for a little bit, and then a wave of the wind carried it up higher and higher towards a cloud. Phillip felt very strange. Sad… but not like he needed to cry. As he watched, the kite slowly faded into the cloud until he couldn’t see it anymore. Phillip kept watching the same spot on the cloud for a while, just thinking and feeling.
As Phillip turned to walk home he still felt sad, but also alright. It wasn’t the happiest thing to lose grandfather’s kite, but at least he knew where it was. Any time a cloud would pass its shadow over him he couldn’t help but wonder if grandfather’s kite was there, watching him from afar. Somehow that made everything okay.
It’s been a wonderful privilege to share these Phillip the Mouse stories. These last two in particular were ones where I wanted to imbue the stories with something special, something that I’m proud of. Even though they were designed for my toddler son, I didn’t want take advantage of his more accepting nature, I wanted to work on them until I could get them right and make them of as high quality as I’m capable. Like I said in my post on Monday, our children, of all people, are the most deserving and needing of our very best.
Also I feel these stories are not just children’s stories. They are stories for everyone. They explore concepts we all deal with and all need to face one way or another. Perhaps my son won’t fully understand all these ideas now, but I hope the seed will be there so he recognizes them when they do come up in life.
This will conclude the Phillip the Mouse series, and next week we’ll be off to somewhere entirely new. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.
I am both the father of a toddler and an animation enthusiast. Combined together, these mean that I read and watch a lot of children’s content and, as a result, have developed no small frustration for how many of them are of dreadful quality. When I see something that is immature, irresponsible, or poorly produced I imagine the rationale for such abysmal production values is something along the lines of “Well yeah, it’s bad…but this is just for kids.” Whether or not this statement is ever actually said between producers and creators, this “well it’s just for kids” mentality pervades our media and it is a deplorable notion. We give our children the worst we have to offer, when they of all people are the most deserving and needing of our very best.
I believe the root cause of this trend is based on an assumption that children won’t care about half-baked efforts because, well, children are stupid. Why else would they put up with such drivel? This idea, though prevalent, is based entirely on the fallacy that a person’s amount of knowledge and context is the same as their intelligence. Knowing more is assumed to equate to having a better mind. People frequently make this mistake when interacting with foreign visitors, too. Because a foreigner does not know the language or cultural customs they are talked down to and assumed to be simple-minded, although they may be geniuses in their own land.
When I look at my three-year-old son I get the distinct impression is that he is quite an intelligent person. Not that he is an intelligent toddler, not that he is intelligent for his age. Just that he is an intelligent person. In fact, I get the idea that he is more intelligent than I am, myself. True, his mind is still developing, and his ability to comprehend complex concepts is still maturing, but that does not make him dumb. When I tell him a story I want to respect his inherent intelligence. I may, for the time being, tell him stories that are simplified, but I know the difference between simplification and talking-down-to, and I never do the latter.
Another assumption people make about children’s tales is that they can’t tackle difficult topics. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is perfectly fine for children’s stories to deal with subjects such as death, divorce, or even abuse. Indeed, it’s important for youth that are dealing with these life events to have sources to guide them through these minefields. But the children’s story that takes on these matters should approach them gently and sensitively, with utmost care for youth’s tenderness. The intention should be to provide a place where these traumas can be contemplated in a way that feels safe.
There are, fortunately, a few examples of children’s stories that do a very excellent job of respecting their audience and also speaking from the heart. One that I’m personally very fond of is Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss. Dr Seuss speaks passionately and reverently of how wonderful the child being read his story is. He spends a great amount of time praising their greatness, but he’s also going to warn them that they have some weaknesses, too. He tells it to each child straight: they absolutely will fail at some point in their lives, but that that will not be the end of their story. Instead of condemning them, he assures that they can get back up on their feet, off to more wonderful things as soon as they are able.
Another great source of passionate, child-respectful stories is found in the decades-long work of Mister Rogers. With him every child’s emotions were validated. You weren’t a bad person for feeling sorrow or anger, loss or brokenness. He loved you just as you were, and as a friend he wanted to help you process through those feelings. It wasn’t all sober treks across the landscapes of the heart, though, there was also time for fun. His show’s daily trips to the land of make-believe gave a clear message to children that indulging in a little healthy pretend is not just acceptable, it’s vital!
A third example of an excellent children’s story, and one that is far more recent, would be the Pixar film Inside Out. Its portrayal of emotions and childhood development resonate deeply and also compassionately. Its depiction of complex adolescence is so on point that it came as no surprise when I learned of how the film-makers involved professional psychologists in the creation of its themes. Paul Ekman and Dachner Keltner’s expert consultations shine through in the finished work, resulting in a portrayal that is both honest, and also teaches healthy behavior and coping methods. This sort of dedication to accuracy and education elevate the film past the status of just interesting to truly important.
So, what is the consistent theme in all of these examples? What exactly is it that makes for a good children’s story? It’s really quite simple. Make a good story…for children. Be just as creative in your tale for children as you would with any other story, share a message that’s just as heartfelt, and be just as honest about it. Still do your research, still talk to experts, and still put in as much thought and hard work into getting it right. Do your outlines, your character sketches, your drafts, and do them thoroughly. Be passionate, be sincere, be dedicated. Let your great driving motivation be to help and delight your young audience, not just to make a quick buck off of them. In short, all the time and love and commitment you would put into any other story, your children’s stories deserve the same treatment.
When a tale is written with the honest labor and kind intentions outlined above, it is going to be a good story. Not good for its age group. Not good compared to other children’s books. Just a good story. It will be a story that can be enjoyed by everyone, including children. More than that, you’ll feel downright proud of yourself, knowing that you’ve helped a wonderful young mind along its way to health and happiness.
For the last three weeks I’ve shared some stories that were primarily intended for a child, my toddler son. Each one of these stories I outlined, drafted, and iterated on as much as I did any of my other tales. Each one I have tried to imbue with a special kernel of novelty. I’d like to finish this series of Phillip the Mouse adventures with two more entries. They are simple and gentle, but also still bear important lessons for every age of reader, given that they speak to perplexities we all face, youth and aged alike. Come back on Thursday to see how those turn out, and then next week we will move into entirely different territory.