Three Questions You Need to Answer as a Children’s Book Writer

One of my duties every single day as an author, journalist, and constituent, is to read. I study the written word the way a football coach studies football games. I don’t read for pleasure just like a football coach doesn’t attend games to zone out. As much as I’d like to avoid it, I have to read the news to find stories, local, national, and daily, and study their context to enhance my own stories and expand the breadth of my knowledge, and I often dread the effects of these studies: insomnia.

At least once a month, I lay awake at night, my mind churning over which poison to pick, which tragedy unfolding I will think myself into the state of insomnia, and then, when infuriated and saddened enough, probably around 2 in the morning, I get to the point where I ask myself: What do I do with this?  How can I be most useful as an alive, healthy, privileged young-ish person? Do I sign up for another volunteer position? Change my job and start a new career? Join a nunnery? Or do I sign up for the Peace Corps, sell all my possessions, open our home for anyone unhoused who needs a place to sleep and things to eat?

I am quite serious about doing this things. Or do I conscientiously desert, move my family away from this country to a place with less guns, safer schools, free healthcare, less corrupt government? It’s ironic: when I most want to be an instrument of health and peace to this world, I wind up strung out and in mental turmoil.

I am a parent to two children. The minute you become a parent, the minute you reveal that you’re pregnant, you are hit with a barrage of advice on how to be the best parent, but what I’ve learned at this point  in my parenting journey is that the most vital concerns are to:

1. be rested (the most impossible)
2. be present (very tricky) and
3. read a lot of books to your children

Our home is teaming with books. We read together every night in one big bed before the kids go to sleep (and before I go down the rabbit hole of new cycles on the glowing screen of my demon box). What I know to be true, and what I often overlook, is that so much wisdom, so much virtue, and so many answers to my adult life’s big questions can be found in children’s books.

Children will not spare you—if they’re bored, they’ll tell you, or they’ll get up and walk away (or hang upside down). And if you lose your reader as an author, you. have. failed.

Children are wise, they’re fresh, they’re brilliant, they’re awake, they’re curious, and they do not hold back. This makes children’s books the most difficult to write, the hardest to pull off successfully. Kids’ books, when done right, boil the story down to just the essentials. One thousand words max. The words should not repeat what the illustrations show.

And the stories have to deliver, because the audience is a tough crowd. Children will not spare you—if they’re bored, they’ll tell you, or they’ll get up and walk away (or hang upside down). And if you lose your reader as an author, you. have. failed.

A few months ago, while having a sleepover at my parents’ place in town with the kids in tow, I grabbed a book off the shelf to read to the kids at bedtime. We loved it, I loved it. And as I was reading it out loud, a familiar ring of truth went off inside of me, as if my heart had already known such a story from long ago.

The book I’m talking about here is called The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth and it’s based on a short story by the novelist, as well as one of Russia’s most influential moral philosophers and social reformers, Leo Tolstoy. In Tolstoy’s original story of The Three Questions, the protagonist is a Czar, but in this story, the protagonist is a boy named Nikolai.

One day, a young boy named Nikolai (who, in my opinion, looks a lot like my ten-year-old son Theo in the illustrations, but I could be projecting) is outside flying a kite and playing with his animal friends when he asks them to help him answer three important questions, because if he can answer the three questions, then he will always know what to do in his days:

1. When is the best time to do things?
2. Who is the most important one?
3. What is the right thing to do?

In answer to the first question, When is the best time to do things? Sonya the heron tells Nikolai to always “plan in advance.” Gogol the money advices Nikolai to ”pay close attention and you’ll know when.” Right after Gogol the monkey answers, a coconut falls on the monkey’s head; despite his advice to his friend, Gogol had not been paying close attention. Pushkin the dog tells him that “you can’t pay attention to everything yourself,” and that you need a group of friends to ”keep watch and help you decide when to do things.”

In response to Nikolai’s next question, Who is the most important one?,  Sonya the heron tells him that it is “those who are closest to heaven.” Gogol, rubbing his bruised noggin, declares it is “those who know how to heal the sick.” And Pushkin, a dog who answers to a master, tells Nikolai that it is “those who make the rules.”

And in Nikolai’s third question, What is the right thing to do? his animal friends answer simply: “flying” (Sonya the bird), ”having fun all the time,” (Gogol the monkey) and ”fighting” (Pushkin the dog).

Not content with his friends’ self-serving responses, Nikolai seeks out a wise turtle named Leo (after Tolstoy, of course),who lives alone in the mountains. Upon arrival, Nikolai finds Leo digging in his garden and when he asks his three questions to Leo, the turtle declines to answer, so Nikolai grabs a shovel and, allowing the ancient Leo to rest, begins to tend the garden himself.

Simply by noticing the present moment: what we are doing, noticing our sensations, we come closer to that place of awakened awareness where we can offer whatever we are doing as an answer to those three questions.

Suddenly, a thunderstorm approaches, and as the boy and turtle run for cover, they hear cries for help from the nearby forest. Nikolai changes his direction and runs instead towards the sounds, only to find an injured mother panda and her baby. Without a second thought, the boy carries each of them back to Leo’s cottage.

The morning after the storm, Nikolai is disappointed, believing he still hasn’t found the answers to his three questions. ”But your questions have been answered,” Leo tells him:

if you had not stayed to help in the garden, you wouldn’t have heard the panda’s cries for help from the forest. Therefore, the most important time was the time you spend digging in the garden. The most important one at that moment was me, and the most important thing to do was help me with my garden. Later, when you found the injured panda, the most important time was helping her and her child. The most important ones were the panda and her baby, and the most important thing to do was to make them safe.

Leo explains: “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing by your side….This is why we are here.’”

Not bad, not bad. And we know this, deep down in our hearts, our truest selves know this to be true. The most straightforward but the most difficult way of being is both the simplest and most challenging: to be fluid, adapting, mindful, present.

Simply by noticing the present moment: we come closer to that place of awakened awareness where we can offer whatever we are doing as an answer to those three questions. Moment to moment, rather than the rote going through the motions, waiting for the right moment, the next big thing. This we are equipped to do, just as we are. And it doesn’t have to be all that difficult.

Compassion is an instinct. It is not something we have to learn. Rather, we need to stop unlearning it, stop pushing to the side. We need to take our foot off the gas pedal. To embrace the present, cherish those around us, and strive to do what is right and just. In doing so, we fulfill our divine calling to love one another. And to live the our answers, we must try and try again to pay attention, because the answers are always right there in front of us.

As I type this, it is Saturday night in a cabin in the woods, and I am three and a half hours away from my home on Peaks Island, in the middle of the wilderness with spouse, two children, and our dog. We came here to unplug, to hit the refresh button, to pay attention, non-judgmentally, on purpose.

Everything here is as it should be: the sun is setting in the sky as dinner cooks on a stove, a cold wind runs across the pond outside the cottage. The moon is rising. My daughter Simone by my feet, drawing and singing the song “9 to 5”, and my son Theo, the intrepid explorer, is tapping on the window next to me. “Come outside,” he says, “Because if I see something special, Mom, I want you to see it, too.”

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