my dad promised me that one day I would have my own sailboat, just like he had when he was a kid. But that dream soon faded when life took a tragic turn. Both my parents developed debilitating life-long illnesses. Needless to say, we fell on hard times and my dad couldn't keep his promise. I never got the dreamed of sailboat. So instead I spent a lot of time drawing (mostly sailboats) and reading. One of my favorites stories at the time was, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. It's no surprise to me now why I was drawn to that book, a book about a kid who overcame great hardship to realize his dreams. Looking back, I was a lot like Charlie then, facing terrible uncertainty and dreaming of a better future. I guess the happy ending made me feel just a little bit happier. For a while, anyways.
Me in first grade with my toy sailboat
I think I got the idea that if I could write that kind of story maybe I could keep some of the happy feeling I got from reading them so I asked my teacher how an author wrote a story. They "use their imaginations", was the only reply. Right away I got out paper and pencil and tried it. But it didn't go so well. I couldn't imagine a whole story, just like that, and certainly nothing as interesting or meaningful as the stories I had read. So, frustrated, I decided I wasn't a real writer and gave up. Another dream dashed. From then on, like most kids, I just drew a lot instead. It was much easier to express my feelings that way. In time I got pretty good at art. Funny what happens when you draw every day.
Fourth grade drawing
I happened to see a presentation at an elementary school by a visiting author and illustrator who said he drew his pictures before he wrote the words to his stories. Before? I had never heard that before. In fact, I was taught the opposite - that you had to write the words first. This was so incredibly inspiring and freeing to me since I felt I wasn't particularly good at expressing myself in words. But I knew I could tell a good story with pictures. He also said that writers don't imagine stories from out of thin air, like I had thought, but find their inspiration from all sorts of things, true, or even things you wish were true -like your dreams. I could hardly wait to try. But writing a story would have to wait a little longer. My old first grade dream was coming true when a neighbor gave me an old sailboat he no longer wanted. I quickly restored it and put it in the water. What a thrill it was to finally sail my very own boat!
Sailing my new boat
inspiration struck when I read a book about the wild killer whales that make their home in the waters near where I live. That very night, I dreamed I was sailing my new boat among them. It was the coolest dream I ever had. So, when I awoke I began drawing what I had seen in the dream. These drawings eventually grew into the story (words came later) for my first book, Davy's Dream, about a boy who realizes his dream of sailing with the whales despite repeated failure and discouragement from others. This story, the first story I ever wrote, a story I quite literally dreamed, a story that made my dream of someday writing a story with a happy ending come true, was published and went on to become a picture book classic still in print 30 years on, and a favorite with everyone who shares an appreciation for the mighty and mysterious killer whale.
Illustration from Davy's Dream
I've written and illustrated (or I should say illustrated and written) lots of other books. They are, in order of publication, The Starlight Bride, 1989, a fairy tale, P. Bear's New Years Party, 1990, a counting book, Ever Wondered?, 1991, an idea book, and, Grasper, 1993, about a young crab. In 1995 killer whales were my subject again in, Storm Boy, inspired by the ancient stories and fantastic art of Northwest Coast Native Peoples. It has been read on PBS's Storytime by actress Jane Seymore, nominated for the Caldecott, and has received several other prestigious regional and national awards, including the American Book Award of 1996. This was followed by, Frog Girl, 1997, another Northwest Coast native tale, and The Jupiter Stone, 2003, about a small stone's journey across the universe, and finally, MotoMice, 2017, a heartwarming story of motorcycling mice who discover that despite their obvious differences, they all belong to the same family.
Illustration from MotoMice
So, maybe you're wondering now, did learning to write good stories help me keep that happy feeling I got from reading them? You bet. And more. I realized that every one of us is a writer. Whether we know it or not we all write our own "real life story" a little bit everyday, with the choices we make, the things we do, the things we believe, and the dreams we strive for. And just like Charlie Bucket or Harry Potter, if we also remember to keep going, work through difficult times, have faith in ourselves and our dreams, we can't help but create the life we've hoped for in the long run. And knowing that, has made me very happy indeed.