Children’s Books Taught Me Everything I Need to Know About Backstory
Ann Patchett on Learning Some Unlikely Lessons
I’ve been struggling with backstory lately. How much does the reader need to know? In order to understand a character, must we first understand the character’s parents? What about grandparents? Do we need to know where they went to school and when they got the job and what they were doing during the war? What seems like essential information can grind a novel to a dead halt because life moves forward regardless of what happened in the past. I think of the people who work at Parnassus, people I know and love, but with a few rare exceptions, I don’t know what their parents did for a living. Still, we manage to laugh and argue and have meaningful conversations (mostly, but not always, about books). Why can’t the people in my novel be revealed through their actions, the same way the people in my life are?
I’ve been looking for a book that could serve as a role model, and I found it in Sandra Boynton’s But Not the Armadillo.
I will admit that before Karen and I opened Parnassus, I knew almost nothing about board books. If someone said, “Chew on this,” I figured they were talking about Henry James or Thomas Mann, epic novels that demanded epic attention. But a board book is literally made to be chewed on, with rounded edges and stiff cardboard pages that are nearly indestructible. Babies and toddlers can bang them around and suck on the corners. They can interact with the books any way they see fit and no one gets hurt. Chances are, a board book will have bright colors and fewer than 150 words. Chances are, a parent may have to read that board book no fewer than 150,000 times. The words better be good.“I speak with authority when I say the story of the armadillo who marches to his own drum reads like one of those pocket collections of profound Buddhist wisdom by Thich Nhat Hanh.”
Sandra Boynton is to the board book what Dr. Seuss was to the picture book, what Maurice Sendak was to illustration, what Shel Silverstein was to children’s poetry. It’s just her up there at the top and then a whole lot of other people sharing second place. Even though I don’t have children, I have plenty of friends who do, and I’m always picking up copies of Snuggle Puppy and Little Pookie to give as gifts (every book in the Little Pookie series is stone cold genius).
Over the years I’ve tucked away a stash of Boynton books for myself, so I speak with authority when I say the story of the armadillo who marches to his own drum reads like one of those pocket collections of profound Buddhist wisdom by Thich Nhat Hanh. This armadillo has zero back story. We know nothing about his past. But in 124 words (I counted), we see into his soul. He’s not like everybody else. He eats some cranberries, he jumps on his armadillo toes. He is in every way a perfect and unique armadillo, and all he’s asking is to be accepted for who he is. Not a bad message for a small child. Not a bad message for an aging novelist.
The more I looked at the vulnerability in his little armadillo face, the more I realized that this was what I wanted for my characters. I don’t have to know about his armadillo parents and if they met some bad end on a Texas highway. I don’t need to know where he got his balloon. I accept him. I believe in him. And I believe Sandra Boynton may be the person to teach me what I most need to learn right now.
I read a terrific essay by Joyce Maynard in the New York Times Book Review recently in which she talked about the affair she had with J. D. Saligner when she was 18 and he was 53. She said that because she had written about the affair, people hadn’t taken her seriously, and I realized with no small degree of shame that I had never taken her seriously for exactly that reason. When I admitted this to a smart new friend in an email, she said, “I kind of dismissed Joyce as well, and feel terrible about it. Back then, I automatically adopted a patriarchal mindset just so I could never be dismissed as a girly writer. Ach! What we do to ourselves.”
I think of all the years I wanted people to think I was serious and smart with my battered copy of Wings of the Dove, but in doing so, I may have missed some essential lessons that could be learned from a book I could actually chew on. Maybe you know a baby or a toddler who needs a book about an armadillo who has the strength of character to go his own way, or maybe you’re like me and you just need one for yourself.
I’ll see you in the children’s section.
This piece also runs today on Musing, the online publication of Parnassus Books.