May 11


Lighthouses and Chapter Books by Kirby Larson

Five miles from shore, near Sequim Washington, stands the New Dungeness SpitLighthouse. “New” is a relative term; the lighthouse has been in service since 1857, its beacon reliably guiding ships to safe passage. A few months ago, three writer friends and I werehauled out to the very tip of the spit in enormous trucks rolling on under-inflated tires to navigate the sandy terrain. We unloaded everything we’d need for a week, waved good-bye to our driversand quickly made ourselves at home in the circa 1900 Keeper’s House, complete with panoramic views, creaky wooden floors and a pink-tiled bathroom. For seven glorious days, we were nourished by fresh sea air, entertained by the antics of an eagle family, and exhilarated by brisk walks on the beach, searching for treasure (oh, yes, and there was some writing, too). Each morning at nine, we four volunteer keepers opened the lighthouse for tours, answering questions and sharing history with the industrious folks who’d hiked the five miles out to us. And we gladly led the hardy souls who wanted to go to the top of the lighthouse. In themorning, there were 74 stairs to the beacon room; by the last tour of the day, there were 412.

Unlike the original keepers, I downloadedone app to identify passing ship traffic, and another to keep abreast of rising and falling tides. But I felt a deep connection to those early guardians, drinking from the artesian well they’d dug, studying their photos hung throughout the house, reading snippets of their logbooks. 

Why am I waxing poetic about lighthouses? Because I’m struck by the notion that chapter books and lighthouses have much in common. The latter guide ships to safe and navigable routes; the former also serve as way-finders, not to ocean-going vessels but to the newly independent reader. Chapter books offer bright lights of passage through their generous use of white space, large, easy-to-decode fonts, and interior illustrations specifically to help the first or second grade reader navigate the text. 

Every lighthouse has its tales of bold storms and dramatic rescues; chapter books, too, are bursting with boldness and drama—Sally broke my favorite crayon. Finn scraped his knee. Everyone has a star on the lost tooth chart but me. 

Like every other book for any age reader, achapter book should entertain, explore a theme, resolve a dramatic question. But it needs to do all that primarily using dialogue and action with a healthy dash of humor. A squirmy second grader is not going to stick with lengthy narrative passages. Even if you throw in a dog. 

The biggest difference between a novel for older readers and a chapter book lies in the element of the dramatic question. Or rather the scale of that question. A novel might exploreproblems such as a main character avenging a wrongdoing or overcoming her past or falling in love; problems explored in a chapter book are more in the vein of: will my best friend play with me at recess today?

I fret that, as a mom, I may have been dismissive of my kids’ worries at times. As a chapter book writer, it’s critical that I lean into those kid worries and keep my know-it-all adult self at bay. Claudia Mills, author of 7 x 9 Equals Trouble, and the popular After School SuperStars series, has written: “To be a children’s author is to take seriously problems that the rest of the world doesn’t think are very important.” She says her mantra as a writer is: “If it matters to a third grader, it matters to me.”

In my latest book, SHERMY AND SHAKE: THE NOT-SO-NICE NEIGHBOR (Candlewick Press), I needed to consider what might matter to each of two unlikely friends. For instance,Shermy’s mind is blown when Shake plays familiar board games but by different rules. Shake wants to get outside and run around; Shermy’s preference to read is a foreign concept. And don’t even get Shermy started on Toaster Tarts: he likes his gooey and warm from the toaster while Shake gobbles them downcold, right out of the wrapper. These differences matter so much to the boys, it seems impossible to navigate them.

But a chapter book is a beacon; it must shine light. So, just when it appears that their 4th of July celebration is a dud after the fireworks areleft behind, the boys join forces to make the day sparkle. My supreme hope is that when a young reader sees Shermy and Shake find their way around the rocky shoals of friendship, they, too, glean tips for navigating this most confusing world.

Kirby Larson is the author of numerous books for children, including the Newbery Honor–winning historical novel Hattie Big Sky, and is the coauthor of the New York Times best-selling nonfiction picture book Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle. She lives with her husband in Kenmore, Washington.