A Gotcha Question From a Fifth Grader by Claudia White

I was prepared.  My first middle-grade novel had been released…at long last I was a published author.  I rehearsed my presentation over and over; I was not going to let my audience down.

The day of reckoning arrived and I drove the short distance to the school, still rehearsing my remarks.  I was shown into the library and there waiting for me were the expectant faces of 60 fifth graders and, of course their teachers. My mind went blank.  Not being a teacher, the idea of addressing young minds with professional educators sitting in judgment was daunting.

I shook off my apprehension and launched into my speech:  the writing process from my perspective.  I told them that I was a life-long day dreamer, describing my childhood of sitting in the back seat of my family’s big Buick while on holidays, and with no electronic gizmos to entertain me, how I invented elaborate stories by watching the passing landscape.  Many in the audience raised their hands when I asked if any of them were day-dreamers.  I relaxed, realizing that I was surrounded by a lot of like-minded individuals.

I carried on… explaining how long it took me to have my first novel published.  I talked about brainstorming ideas, which I pointed out was much like what they were learning in class.  I showed them how I had mapped out my books and described how I disciplined myself to write 1500 words a day. We discussed the importance of reading your own work and of rewriting… rereading…rewriting…rereading and rewriting again—I even brought along fifteen rewrites of my first book to show them. They gasped in amazement or perhaps it was horror.  I even showed them my file of rejection letters that I received prior to selling my first book to my publisher and we discussed the importance of seeking and accepting criticism. Teachers always smile and nod at this part.

It was going well until I was asked, “What do you read?”  I froze.  Was this some kind of gotcha question from a fifth grader?  In reality it was more like “What authors have influenced your work?” but I froze anyway just like that legendary deer in the headlights.  To be honest, although I read constantly, I had never really thought about who might have motivated my desire to write.

I have always had a book to read. Why couldn’t I think of one single author who had influenced my work? I have many favorite adult authors who I could have named:  Ken Follet, Joanne Harris, Philippa Gregory, and books that I have loved like The Help, The Secret Life of Bees ,and Winter of the World.  I might have thrown out the name of a children’s author who I’ve enjoyed reading: what about Harry Potter’s J.K. Rowling, or Matilda’s Roald Dahl?  How about Stuart Little’s E. B. White, or Bilbo and Frodo’s Tolkien…so many authors whose works I had enjoyed immensely.  At that moment I hadn’t a clue who I should name.  I knew I had to give an answer, rather than suffering the disastrous consequences of saying something like “All of them” to a question like that.

Then it came to me.  “Philip Pullman,” I said, explaining that a reader of my books had remarked that my work reminded her of his. It was true, in a way, I did enjoy Mr. Pullman’s books, but was he really the mentor for my ambitions?

In the end the audience had been satisfied with my answer but that question still haunted me. Which authors had influenced me?

Afterward I racked my brain to remember many of the stories I enjoyed as a child.  Marguerite Henry’s books enthralled me as did Walter Farley’s. Tolkien was a favorite as was C. S. Lewis. I loved all the works of these wonderful authors, I often recommended their books, but I couldn’t really point to the author who had a profound impact on my desire to write or swayed my style as a writer. Did Roald Dahl play a part?  Did E. B. White?

I have visited more schools since, addressing hundreds of young readers and writers.  No longer do I cringe when asked that very simple and common question because the answer is not complicated.  Every time I pick up a book I am in awe of the author’s ability to tell a story.  I have learned from their writing styles just as I have been motivated by their imagination. I am stirred by their ability to take me to far-off lands and deliver me to exciting situations.  From Marguerite Henry to Ken Follet to authors who have yet to become famous, I have been influenced and inspired by their talents.  So in this case, “All of them” is actually the best answer.

Claudia White is a recognized expert in day-dreaming, and she has at last been prodded by her young audiences to record her imagined worlds on paper.  White has written professionally for more than twenty years; her novels include Aesop’s Secret: Key to Kashdune and Servalius Window .  White wrote her three novels while living in Oxfordshire, England, and Ontario, Canada.  You can find her on-line at www.claudiawhitebooks.com, on Twitter @white_ca or through her publisher http://mppublishingusa.com/