EVEN DANCING DINOSAURS HAVE SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO SAY by James Howe
Writers write stories. Writers write characters. What we don’t write are themes. But our themes always find us. After we’ve been writing for some time, we come to realize:
- The same themes – maybe four or five at most – show up in our work over and over again, although we’ll dress them in different stories and characters.
- Our themes might be called The Important Things We Want Our Readers to Think About Which If They Do Think About Might Actually Change Their Lives. Because why are we writing if we don’t have something important to say? Even when we’re writing about dancing dinosaurs.
- Our themes have been with us since we were children. (Everyone’s themes have been with them since they were children, but not everyone writes. Themes still have a way of finding us; they just get played out in different ways.)
So about those dancing dinosaurs.
I didn’t set out to write Tyrone O’Saurus Dreams on the theme of Being True to Yourself and Pursuing Your Dream Whatever the Obstacles, even though the word “dream” is right there in the title. And, okay, to be honest, I did kind of know that’s what it would be about, because the theme of Being True to Yourself and Pursuing Your Dream Whatever the Obstacles is one of my four or five themes, one I’ve written about many times in close to 100 books.
One of those books is Brontorina. Hers is the story of a dinosaur whose dream is to be a ballerina. Her size stands in her way, until a very smart fellow classmate at Madame Lucille’s Dance Academy for Girls and Boys (and ultimately Dinosaurs) (and Cows) (you’ll have to read the book to know how that happened) suggests that Madame Lucille move her too-small-for-a-dinosaur studio outdoors. The final illustration, by the very talented and clever Randy Cecil, shows Brontorina in an open field being lifted overhead by a male ballet dancer who just happens to be a Triceratops. The words under this illustration are, “And it all began with a dream.” Brontorina has realized her dream, despite the obstacles, with the help and support of others. (Another important theme that has found me as a writer and shown up in most, if not all, of my books: the importance of friendship and being there for one another.)
One day I was looking at that final illustration with fresh eyes and the thought occurred to me: Who is that dinosaur holding Brontorina aloft? Did he have a dream that brought him there? I thought it would be fun to write his story and end his book with the same illustration and words as hers. The problem was that in my head he was a Tyrannosaurus rex, and I had the perfect name for him: Tyrone O’Saurus. It was Randy who pointed out he was a Triceratops. Darn! By that point, the story had been written, and try as I might, I couldn’t come up with a name based on “Triceratops” that worked anywhere near as well as Tyrone O’Saurus. So I let go of the idea that the last illustration would be the same. (That Triceratops’ story remains to be told.) But I did keep the last line.
Like Tyrone and Brontorina, I was a dreamer when I was young. Well, the truth is I’ve never stopped being a dreamer. But when I was young, many of my dreams had to do with what I wanted to be when I grew up. I lay in bed at night before sleep came, conjuring detailed fantasies of myself as a famous actor, picturing myself on the stage and in movies, and more often than I’d like to admit, accepting awards. I was also a daydreamer and I still am. I was lucky in having parents who supported me as a dreamer, never admonishing me to get my head out of the clouds or trying to talk me out of my dream of being an actor. Even my older brothers, like Tyrone’s older brother, were supportive of me in their own ways.
I was incredibly fortunate to have such support from my family. They enabled me to believe in myself and to see my dreams not just as fantasies but as potential reality. Books do that too. For some young people, especially those who don’t have the kind of family or community support I’m talking about, books can be a lifeline between their present reality and the dreams that offer hope of a different future reality. Books can be so much more than an escape; they can be a transport.
As a reader, I turn to books on a daily basis to open me to new thoughts, new ideas, new dreams. As a writer, I create my stories and their characters to give voice to my themes, with the hope that I will do so with a lightness of touch that will open my readers to their own new thoughts, new ideas, new dreams, and the themes they will carry with them throughout their lives.
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James Howe is the author of many books for children, including the Bunnicula series and the Misfits series. He is also the author of the Houndsley and Catina and Pinky and Rex beginning reader series, as well as numerous picture books, including Brontorina; Tyrone O’Saurus Dreams; Big Bob, Little Bob; I Wish I Were a Butterfly; and Horace and Morris but mostly Dolores. His most recent dreams include making music as one-half of the singer-songwriter duo Old Dogs New Tricks and taking up the cello after a more than fifty-year hiatus since he played it in the seventh grade. Visit him at jameshowe.com and olddogsnewtricksmusic.com.
As an author who’s new to new to picture book writing, the notion of moving to a different theme, crosses my mind when a new idea comes to me. I’m glad to read that you have a set of themes that come into play for you. Your fun books resonate with children and adults alike. The themes and characters stay in our hearts. Thank you for your incredible contributions to our bookshelves.
It’s SO true, about those themes that come up again and again in our writing that turn out to be The Important Things We Want Our Readers to Think About Which If They Do Think About Might Actually Change Their Lives. I’ve finished my fifth book and I feel like in each one I’m saying the same thing through bicycling girls, Viking boys, and walruses. I didn’t mean to. I just “write what I can’t shut up about” as my adult author friend Suzanne Strempek Shea once advised me.
I should think dancing dinosaurs have a LOT to say.