Like Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh, many of the children's books I love best began as conversations between a writer and a child. A Dark & Dismal Flower began that way, as a conversation with my five-year-old daughter Eve, who was read too many gothic fairy tales as a child (The Thirteen Clocks was a favorite), and has a tendency to speak in archaic literary language ("Never to be seen again" might describe a lost sock). "I think the morning is the seed of the day," she said. "However you are in the morning, that's what your day turns into."
When I picked her up from kindergarten, she was still pondering this. It had been a smooth morning for her but a cranky morning for her two-year-old brother. "I think Jack planted the seed of misery," she deadpanned, "and I hope it has not grown into a dark and dismal flower."
That phrase hung in the air, "a dark and dismal flower." It was disturbing and fantastic to hear it spoken aloud in her small voice. It was a thread that begged to be pulled: where would that flower of misery grow ("A soggy hollow"). What would it smell like? ("Tears.") What other seeds might exist – aspects of ourselves that we cultivate or battle – and how would they blossom? We thought of a whole list of them — positive qualities like Cheerfulness, Kindness, Hope and Humor, but also darker attributes like Spoiled, Argument, Vanity and Regret. I devised a framing narrative, about a little girl whose magical aunt gives her a packet of seeds, "each one different, each a mystery," and Eve conjured the phrases and imagery for each flower, drawing inspiration from the flowers that we'd actually grown, from pictures she'd seen in books, and from her own lucid imagination. With help from New York-based illustrator Shamona Stokes and animator Alex Scott, we were able to give exquisite, animated form to the text.
As a parent and a writer, it was a balancing act to apply a writer's skill, pulling the images and phrases into a more poetic meter, making the language flow, without dominating the project. As a parent, it's so tempting to rush in, to fill the space. It takes discipline to stay in question mode — to truly listen. But it was fascinating to watch a child translate these abstract concepts into the sensuous qualities of color, texture, form and fragrance. Children are alive to their senses. Their sense memories are very rich and immediate, and they can draw analogies to sensory experience — touch, taste, smell — that are shocking.
"What would the flower of Regret smell like?" I asked on the way to ballet class. Eve stared out of the car window for a moment. We were both quiet.
"You know a house that hasn't been lived in for a long, long time — one that's been abandoned?" she asked. "That's what Regret smells like." She's never been in a house like that. But I have — I know that's what Regret smells like.
I hope A Dark & Dismal Flower spurs these kinds of conversations between parents and children — children's reflections on their own moral universe. It's very fertile ground. For other grown-ups looking to co-create creative works with children, I humbly offer a few suggestions:
1) Don't think of it as a "project," the way you think about work projects (or serious hobby projects). Think of it as a series of conversations that produces artifacts. Focus on the quality of the conversations. If you foster deep, upward-spiraling conversations, the quality of the artifacts will follow. And even if it doesn't, you'll have had some amazing conversations with your kid. Value the verbal or visual doodles — many of them merit elaboration.
2) If the work requires technical skill (poetic meter, lathing, etc.), think of your role as the fabricator who does an artist, architect, or fashion designer's industrial work. Children (like TED speakers) are great at "vision," and (ditto) are often comfortable leaving the details of implementation to their direct reports.
3) Don't rush to fill the silence. Children will stare out of car windows for half a minute before saying something really profound. If you jump in with a comment after five seconds, you'll never hear the remark that totally blows your mind. It's OK to "do nothing" at the activity table, because that "nothing" is actually reflection on the materials at hand, or the formulation of an idea.
4) If the work involves, narrative, make the simplicity or complexity of the narrative age appropriate. Pre-schoolers can easily own "theme and variations" type stories (like planting different flowers in a garden). Older children are more capable of formulating sweeping and detailed plots.
5) Accept the limits of what even the most precocious child can do, and understand that the contours of a child's thinking can be discontinuous. As a first grader, Eve could draw parallels between Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf and Tolkein's world of Middle Earth. But when asked what behavior should accompany the Patience flower, she couldn't articulate patience as a positive quality. She could only express it as a lack — enduring the unpleasantness of waiting for something you want. For a seven-year-old, patience is a kissing cousin to pain tolerance: something you need in an unpleasant situation, to keep it from becoming even more unpleasant. I prompted. I tilted the question. I led the witness. No dice. It was a cognitive roadblock, even though Eve can be a very patient child, especially with her younger brother. When the two of them sit on the carpet with a jigsaw puzzle, she knows which pieces go where. But she lets him take a lot of time to realize which piece to pick up, then put it in the wrong way before placing it the right way. She doesn't rush him, even though she could complete the puzzle in a tenth of the time by herself. I hope this is because I'm setting a good example, but it might just be her nature. I used the real life puzzle interaction as the Patience behavior, along with Eve's description of the crocus-like flowers of Patience:
They tucked Patience, a tiny bulb, into the ground.
It slept until a full moon rose to shine
through the limbs of a tree
and onto violet buds reaching up, full of light
and the ribbony smell of an unopened gift.
We live in a go-go, constantly distracted world where instant gratification is at a premium. Perhaps the greatest grown-up benefit in a child-driven work is, it rewards patience. It pays dividends to quiet inquisitiveness, gazing out the window, staring up at clouds. These creative endeavors remind us to give our children this kind of time — and allow it for ourselves.