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Ends of the beginnings

Writer Jonathan Auxier says the best children’s stories capture the tension of life’s many thresholds

Ends of the beginnings

Jonathan Auxier (Michael Ray)

Jonathan Auxier is a husband, father, and New York Times best-selling author of young adult fiction, including Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard. We recently discussed his childhood, writing philosophy, and the influence of his faith on his work.

Tell me about your childhood.

My parents were both really, really big readers. Both of my parents read aloud to us all of the time. My father used to come to our classes once a week and read stories aloud. I was raised in a world of books and storytelling, so it’s not terribly surprising I ended up doing it for a living.

Did you want to be an author from childhood?

Even though I loved to read, I wasn’t a very confident writer. I had poor spelling and weak grammar. I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps and tell stories visually through art. For most of my childhood, adolescence, and even undergraduate years, I thought I would be an artist or an illustrator of some kind. The problem I ran into: I’m not a terribly good artist. My storytelling ambitions significantly outpaced my actual skill with a pen, so I had to figure out another way to tell the stories inside of me. I bounced around, did a lot of art, theater, and at one point was desperately interested in making movies. It was a matter of finding the right fit for me, and that ended up being children’s fiction.

Is good storytelling a lost art today?

I would say the opposite. We in America today are some of the most sophisticated story consumers history has ever seen. Most adults are so exposed to narrative that they’re almost a little inoculated to it. It’s very hard to impress them. This is one of the reasons I love writing for kids, because they don’t have those defenses. They don’t have that very complex network of all these stories that they’ve been exposed to in the past. There’s something so pure and wonderful about the immediacy and the ingenuousness of a child reader. It keeps me honest as a storyteller, because I know simply being clever or demonstrating a certain level of intelligence won’t be enough.

Why do adults like reading children’s books?

The children’s books I love the most are not actually about children and childhood. They are very specifically about the end of childhood—those liminal moments when you’re leaving childhood and moving on to something else. They have a sense of loss. There’s a sense that whatever happens in this story is going to be the end of that story, and you’re going to have to leave some things behind as you move on to the rest of your life. That resonates for me over and over again. What is life but a series of thresholds? Your last days of childhood, and then your last days of high school, your last days of university, your last days as a single person, your last day as married people without a kid, and your last day before your kid goes to preschool. The rest of my life is going to be that very complex and bitter exchange where I’m leaving something sweet and wonderful behind in the understanding that I need to take on something ahead of me. When I read a great work of children’s literature, it speaks so directly to that feeling.

What’s been your best writing day?

Pretty much without exception I would say all of my writing days are lousy. I love coming up with stories in my head, but it is agony to put it on a page. I don’t like writing, but I love having written. When a thing is done and I get to look at it, that brings me tremendous joy.

What’s been your worst experience as an author?

Every author, once in a while, has a no-show event. You are stuck at a table with a stack of books, and it’s you and the bookstore clerk, both feeling embarrassed for each other. Those are an amazing check on the ego.

How does your Christian faith influence your characters and what you’re trying to accomplish?

Every book functions as therapy for me. They often involve me taking the things that trouble me the most, the things I’m wrestling with, and I insert those problems directly into my characters. I basically use those characters to help guide me toward some clarity—even if the clarity is that there will be no clarity. A lot of people from different faith backgrounds ask about some of the language I’m using. My first book had a lot of Old Testament imagery. Some of that is working out my immediate, present-tense faith, and some of it is engaging with a literary tradition of the most important work of literature in the Western world and human history.

What’s the role of a Christian author in today’s pluralistic society?

I wouldn’t distinguish the role of a Christian storyteller and any storyteller. All artists, storytellers included, have one job: Tell the truth.

‘All artists, storytellers included, have one job: Tell the truth.’

What’s your philosophy on darkness in children’s books?

I tend to believe kids are tough and robust. They can handle darkness in storytelling. I also believe darkness is essential in storytelling. The only way you can really put true light and true joy and a true path for living in a story is if children or characters of any kind are being faced with actual threats and actual danger.

What’s your next project?

I’m finishing up research for my next book, which is about a girl chimney sweep living in the 19th century who finds a monster living inside a chimney. The research is incredibly depressing, because if you know anything about chimney sweeps and the children who worked for them, it is just soul-crushingly sad. My goal is to write a book that contains some of that sad stuff but also a little bit of light.

J.C. Derrick

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD’s deputy chief content officer and WORLD Radio’s managing editor based in Dallas. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.