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But… Why?

In the very earliest manuscript of The Fuel Factory, the cast featured both of my children. My eldest daughter, Evy, is telling her younger sister, Julia, about how digestion functions. At the time, Julia was just a toddler, so the audience was learning along with her as Evy provided the narration.

A thumbnail image from an early version of the Fuel Factory

Reference photo of Julia, who has turned her bowl into a hat :-)

Much of the story takes place inside of Julia’s GI tract. Evy continues her dialog while we follow the digestion journey. But we often go back outside of the body to see the effects. This presented some complexity that would need to be navigated in text and image. But there were other larger narrative issues unbeknownst to me.

At the beginning of this version of the story, Evy kicks off by saying something along the lines of “How does digestion work, something something, let me tell you more about it.” 

I don’t recall all of it, thankfully, as it was bad. Really bad. However, I do recall that the rhyming phrase ended with something like this:

“This is so important for you to know!”

I was in class at Hartford when Jeff Mack, the co-instructor of our children’s book course, stopped by my desk to check my progress. He read that phrase, looked at me, and asked,

“But… why? Why is it so important?”

One of the hardest things for me as an instructor, even today, is giving short responses. If I get the sense something isn’t sticking, I’ll expound until someone's eyes begin to roll. Mack asked a simple and concise question. It was effective.

Mack is not only a children’s book illustrator but an extremely competent author as well, and he has both written and illustrated many of his titles. 

He showed many examples of narratives he had written throughout the course. Good News, Bad News is one of his books and was a fabulous in-class example of how he had discovered ways to distill narratives down to very core ideas yet still make them clearly communicate. Totally worth checking out.

The reality is I had no idea how to answer his question. And I was forced to admit that at the moment. No defense. 

I told myself when I started the program that I would take the posture of a student. This seems like an obvious statement: I was a student by virtue of joining the program, but I wasn’t young anymore. I wasn’t the oldest in the program by any stretch but I had been around long enough to have accumulated some experience and had worked on some interesting and commercially successful projects. Long enough to have grown an ego. These unfortunate things create problems for us.

Thankfully, the Lord had mine in check. My response to his question was equally simple. 

“I don’t know!”

Even though I had no clue, I knew his question was important and one I would have to wrestle with. It was rooted in the place of me having to admit that:

1) My statement of “this thing is important” didn’t mean it really was just because I said it.

2) I needed to give the reader a reason to care. Because at that moment, I didn’t have one.

The book was just a walk-through of how digestion works (to its inevitable end), and once we’ve arrived… that’s it! It needed to be more. There were several narrative problems I didn’t know existed and wouldn’t fully understand, much less have the answers to resolve them until well after my thesis was completed.

I regret I don’t remember the rest of what Mack said (sigh). I like to remind my students of a very important thought; 

“You don’t get to choose what someone remembers.” 

Occasionally, I’ve had students recall something I told them in a conversation or critique that I don’t even remember saying. It’s a sobering thought.

Thankfully, I remembered Mack’s important question, which proved to be one of many helpful comments along the way in developing this book.

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