I’ve written a lot of books with a lot of characters, but Iva Honeysuckle takes the cake. She isn’t me, but she lets me be my nine-year-old self again.
Iva’s story began when I was driving home from a conference. Suddenly this character, her entire family, and a town full of people boiled into my head. The character told me her name was Iva Honeycutt, that she was almost nine, and that she had a tattling, sneaky, lying double-first cousin named Heaven, who was clearly no angel.
She said she lived in Uncertain, Virginia, and she wanted to be a great discoverer. (As a great discoverer, she called herself Iva Honeysuckle so she wouldn’t be just another Honeycutt sister or cousin.) She was friends with Euple Free, owner of the third-fastest pickup in town, and Swannanoah Priddy, who ran the town dump, and Swannanoah’s parents who owned a taxidermy/cake decorating business in the same shop, but had not spoken a syllable to each other in thirty-five years.
Iva told me she was suspicious of Cazy Sparkle, who threw yard sales any old day of the week, but loved Walser Compton, the Sunday school teacher and the only person who really understood Iva and who served preacher cookies with unsweetened cherry Kool-Aid on her front porch while she was understanding her.
I moved into Iva’s town, Uncertain, a place that suited me right down to the ground. The people in that town were my people. Although the characters and the town are fiction, the place they came from was very real. The characters spoke the language I grew up hearing (and still speak myself), language salted with idioms and poor grammar, interesting talk.
The events in Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World (Hyperion) are based somewhat on my own life, but Iva had a life of her own to live and she roared like a freight train in her story.
She didn’t shut up until I wrote another book about her. In Iva Honeysuckle Meets Her Match (Hyperion). I cast back to all those day trips to the beach with my cousins, fighting for the “best” window, dropping Planter’s peanuts in a bottle of R.C. Cola and then shaking the bottle with disastrous results, falling out over something before we’d backed out of the driveway, then making up, and then falling out again.
Stingray Point, a real place, is not a little beach town. I combined all the little gimcrack beach “resorts” we frequented—Widewater, Fairview, Colonial Beach, Breezy Point—to give my fictional version of Stingray Point a little life. And I dreamed myself back to those days when the sun blared in the hazy sky, the rough sand promised buckets of fossil shark’s teeth, and jellyfish dotted the beach like giant loogies.
Do we write for ourselves or for readers? People who write for children have to be aware of their audience. But we also have to tap into our pasts. It doesn’t matter if we have children, or teach children, or are around children. What matters is that we were kids once. We can observe children, but we only know the feelings we experienced as a child.
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