The Power of “What If?” by Jonathan Auxier
This week my new book Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard comes out into the world. Sophie was an incredibly difficult book for me to write—the story is considerably bigger and more ambitious than anything I had ever written before. When I began drafting the story, I didn’t have a main character in mind. I didn’t have a setting or plot or even a title. All I had were two words:
These words were my North Star while finding my way through the story. I knew I wanted to write something that made me feel the way that question made me feel—wonder and a touch of fear. I wanted to tell a story that could illustrate the power of that question.
When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with the question What if? I used to ask it constantly—so much that my mother started referring to me as her “little what if” (she still does). I remember as a young reader coming across a quote from Chris van Allsburg:
Stories begin as fragments of pictures in my mind. I create a story by posing questions to myself. I call it the “what if” and “what then” approach. For example, for my book Jumanji, I started out by thinking “What if two bored children discovered a board game? What if the board game came to life? What then?”
Imagine my delight to know that this question, which consumed me, was also an important question for one of my very favorite writers! After that point, I made What if? a core part of how I approached stories, and it has served me well ever since.
The beauty of What if? is that it’s expansive: A hundred people could hear that question and give a hundred different answers—and they would all be correct. In the case of Sophie Quire, I realized that the real core of the book was an inversion of the question:
What if people stopped asking What if?
As soon as I had that question, I knew I had my story. Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard is the tale of a twelve year-old bookmender who learns that the magical characters and places in her storybooks are actually real and that she is the one thing standing between them and complete destruction. The story is a love letter to every person who has ever felt more at home in a dusty bookshop than anywhere else in the world. While writing Sophie Quire, I read widely on the topic of wonder, and I found a quote from Kenneth Grahame that summed up my question:
The most priceless possession of the human race is the wonder of the world. Yet, latterly, the utmost endeavours of mankind have been directed towards the dissipation of that wonder . . . . Nobody, any longer, may hope to entertain angels unawares, or to meet Sir Lancelot in shining armour on a moonlit road. But what is the use of living in a world devoid of wonderment?
I liked this quote so much that it ended up as my epigraph.
As I worked my way through Sophie Quire, I realized that it was no accident that a story about a bookmender was a story about the power of What if? Those two things were closely linked. Because at their core, that’s what books do—teach us to ask What if? And every time that happens, the world becomes a little bit more wonderful.
JONATHAN AUXIER write strange stories for strange children. He is the author of Peter Nimble, The Night Gardener, and Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard. He teaches fiction writing and children’s literature in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his family and their adorable pet umbrella. You can visit him at http://www.TheScop.com where he blogs about children’s books old and new.