Last year around this time I was freaking out. I was accustomed to talking with teen audiences, but for the first time I’d be presenting to elementary and middle school audiences for my new series, The Unwanteds. I put together a slide presentation but it felt boring—pictures of my kids when they inspired the book idea, pictures of our family, and some illustrations of characters my son had drawn. I felt like my presentation was going to be self-absorbed and dumb.
“Why would anyone want to see a slide show of my goofy family?” I argued with my husband as I packed for tour. “I feel really self-conscious about this.”
“Because the story behind The Unwanteds is inspiring to kids,” he said. “Plus that picture of us all crammed into the photo booth at the zoo is pretty funny.”
“But there’s no point! I don’t even have an ending to this presentation. What am I going to say? ‘Well, kids, it’s over. Wake up. Now, buy my book?’”
“Of course not. Run through it a few times. It’ll come to you,” my husband said.
I did, and it didn’t. With no more time, I took my boring slide show on the road.
“These are my kids when they were twelve and nine,” I began nervously at my first school event.
“That’s how old they were when they came home from school with a letter that said the arts programs at school would be cut. I remember saying, ‘Wow, kids, I’m so sorry—it kind of feels like you’re being punished for being creative.’ And then I said, ‘Hey, what if kids really were punished for being creative?’ And my son said, ‘Not just punished—sent to their deaths!’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And that’s how I got the idea for the book.”
(Cue twenty 4th graders raising hands) “Who’s that lady?”
Me: “I…don’t know.”
I hurriedly flipped to the next slide. “Here are some pictures of Unwanteds characters that my son drew. He’s the artist in the family, and my daughter likes to sing and perform in theatre.”
I hurried through a few more and dared a glance at the audience. They looked interested. Some of them were even pointing and talking to the kids next to them. “Your son drew those?” one asked.
“Yes,” I said. “When he was seventeen. But a few years before that, the kids helped me with this book in other ways. When I was first writing it, I needed ideas for some of the magic in the book. I wanted all the magic to be somehow related to art, music, theatre, dance, writing, and stuff like that. So we sat around the living room, the whole family, and the kids came up with lots of the magic that’s in the book. And we all learned that it’s really important for magic spells to have rules to restrict their power. Like, there has to be a downside, you know? You can’t have a magical spell that saves everybody or eliminates everybody, or the book is boring. Right?”
Five hundred heads nodded and I could hear a faint buzz of voices. “My kids came up with magical spells like ‘scatterclips’ – where you take a handful of twisted paperclips and throw them at the enemy. They soar and divide at the last second, pinning the opponent to a tree or a wall by his clothing. But the opponent can escape with help.
“Another spell is called ‘invisibility paintbrush,’” I said. “It’s a defensive spell where you can paint yourself invisible. But the downside is that it only lasts about twenty minutes.” I looked at the crowd of 4th-6th graders, jiggling in their seats, all bursting with something to say unlike any teen audience I’d ever seen. I hesitated. “So, um, can anyone think of an art-related magical spell that would be good to use on your enemies, yet has limitations to it?” I asked.
Five hundred hands shot into the air, and mouths started moving. Teachers throughout the room shifted and glanced at each other in that “I’m not really nervous about this impending disaster, are you?” sort of way.
In the din, which lasted several minutes, I watched those kids come up with amazing spells like my children had done several years before. I glanced up at the screen at the pictures my son had drawn for my presentation. And finally it dawned on me. I had my ending.
I showed the next slide and shouted. “Here’s our family!”
The kids quieted and stared, tilting their heads, perplexed looks on their faces, only a few daring to laugh.
“And here are my kids now, at seventeen and fourteen. I took this photo the first day of school just a few weeks ago.”
I looked at the audience. They were animated. Engaged. As they quieted, I said, “You’re probably wondering why I’m showing you all of these pictures of my kids.”
They looked at me expectantly as my own thoughts were still formatting.
“It’s because I want you to know something. I want you to know that you can do cool things like this too. You just did it – you came up with magical spells with limitations, and all you need to do next—like, after school (I said, learning quickly)–is write them down.”
It almost felt like an ending. But there was more to be said. More I wish somebody had told me when I was in 4th grade, secretly wanting to be a writer.
“I want you to know that you don’t have to be a grownup to draw illustrations for your favorite book, or paint landscapes of your favorite place. You don’t have to be an adult to come up with a cool cup holder invention to keep your mom’s coffee from spilling in the car, or teach a younger child about numbers and reading, or sing and act on a stage, or run faster than the current world record-holder. And you certainly don’t have to be a grownup to come up with amazing ideas for a book, or a movie, or a comic, and start writing. You can do all these things right now. You can start working on your own magical world today.”
Today, as I visit schools with the second book in The Unwanteds series, with new photos and drawings of new characters, I am proud that my children are the back-story, and I hope they can be the link between students and their creative dreams.
Lisa McMann is the New York Times bestselling author of the paranormal WAKE trilogy, the dystopian fantasy THE UNWANTEDS series, INFINITY RING: THE TRAP DOOR, and other books for teens and tweens. She lives with her husband Matt, two kids, and two cats in Mesa, Arizona. Find her near you by visiting her website tour page, http://lisamcmann.com/html/tour.php