Kids often ask this when I go into schools.
It may be because I tell them that ideas are everywhere, that I’m gathering bits and pieces all the time, that just this morning I quietly filed away a funny thing their teacher said, or a cool-looking tree just outside their classroom, or the way their glasses make them look like a superhero in disguise.
It may be because I tell them I’m always collecting character names, that when they tell me theirs it sometimes starts things firing in my brain: Humphrey for a villain? Or a duck? A villainous duck! Charis for a small girl on an important mission across a magical land. Noah and Abby and Ella and Ruby just for the solid, satisfying ring of them.
Eyes light up. Will you put me in a book? they ask. You could write about our class!
And the answer is always no, because I can never plan to write about things or people in that way.
But the answer is also always yes, because things sneak into my work when I’m not looking, and the kids and the classes and the schools I’ve been to over the years are there when I think about it, when I look back on the work after it’s finished.
In Duck for a Day, Noah is every little boy who looks at his shoes and won’t put his hand up. I see them all the time, uncertain, shy. Sometimes they’re waiting for the exact right thing to light them up. Maybe it’s a duck. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Noah is every kid whose teacher ever came up to me after a session and said, He never asks questions in class! I’ve never seen him like that.
And Abby is every little girl who likes things just so – her pencils lined up neatly, her friend to stop touching her braids. Because they’re perfect – she knows it – and you might mess them up! She sits up straight. She knows the answer. She’s busting to tell everything she knows, to make the teacher see how special she is. She knows that if you just do the right thing, good things will come – merit awards, big red ticks on your work, possibly a duck for a sleepover. She has nothing in common with a boy who can’t keep his shoelaces tied. She is outraged that in the shuffle of getting settled for my talk, she has somehow ended up next to him on the mat.
In Surface Tension/Below, Cassie and Liam are the kids who are uncomplicated friends, even in Year 7, even though it’s time for girls to be girls and boys to be boys, to roll eyes and giggle at each other across gendered lines. They’re the ones who sit defiantly next to each other, exchanging glances, sharing jokes, ignoring the chants of Cassie and Liam, sitting in a tree … because their relationship will never be about that, and both of them know it.
It’s quite possible that I’m projecting, that I see these kids more clearly than others because some part of me – or my childhood self – connects to the way they seem to be in the world. But whatever the reason, I gather them up. They stay with me, sleeping quietly in the back of my mind until I find a place for them somewhere on the page.
Will I put you in a book? No. Yes. Definitely. Just keep being who you are and you never know where you might end up. Possibly – probably – with a duck by your side.