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N.D. Wilson (left) and J.B. Cheaney

Doors of imagination

Interview | Authors J.B. Cheaney and N.D. Wilson on the joys and challenges of writing for young readers

Issue: "He's in," Sept. 22, 2007

J.B. Cheaney, who writes frequently in the pages of WORLD, also writes books for children. In her most recent novel, The Middle of Somewhere, a precocious 12-year-old girl and her hyperactive little brother set out on a road trip through Kansas in a brand new RV with their reluctant, wind-prospecting grandfather. Veronica (Ronnie) hopes the trip will usher in a new, more exciting chapter in her life, but she finds that keeping her rambunctious brother from driving their grumpy granddad nuts takes all her energy and creativity. The result: unexpected lessons.

N.D. Wilson, son of pastor Doug Wilson, also writes novels for young readers. In his new novel, Leepike Ridge, 11-year-old Tom floats down a river on a piece of foam from a refrigerator box. When a part of the river flows underground, it carries Tom with it. Above ground, his widowed mother won't give up hope that he's still alive, even in the face of creepy suitors and treasure hunters who try to convince her otherwise. Meanwhile, Tom needs courage, optimism, and ingenuity to survive in a spooky underworld.

WORLD: You two seem to have a lot of things in common. For instance, you both use initials instead of first names. Why?

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CHEANEY: If your name were Janie Cheaney, wouldn't you think that J.B. sounds more . . . professional?

WILSON: From elementary school on, my favorite authors all wrote under initials-C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton. Very early on, I decided that when I was published, I wanted to use initials as a sort of hat-tip, an acknowledgment of my sources (and my debt to them).

WORLD: You're also both Christians who write fiction. How do those two parts of your identity fit together?

WILSON: They can't be separated. Christianity is a story, the arc of reality. Good stories aren't made up, they're found, discovered from elements already in the world (fall, redemption, triumph through death and sacrifice, etc.) and rewoven back into a convincing sub-reality. Leepike Ridge is entirely built around those themes.

CHEANEY: The author emerges from the Christian: We all have our calling. Once I'm well into a work of fiction, the Christian emerges from the author. I don't know the theme of the story when I start writing it, but theme will eventually reveal itself, and reflect some part of Christian truth. For instance, one of the characters in The Middle of Somewhere is a wind prospector. As I wrote, wind became a recurring image of the book, culminating in an actual reference to John 3:8.

WORLD: You both write about characters whose dads have died. Why?

CHEANEY: In real life, good parents help kids solve their problems, which is as it should be. But in literature, the kids have to solve their own problems as much as possible. Adults can help, but to have mom or dad step in and fix it is the equivalent of a deus ex machina. Unless their intervention is part of the problem. In all my novels so far, the father is either dead or absent. The significance being . . . search me.

WILSON: Fatherlessness or father-hunger (through any number of causes) is a very real and very relatable thing for any number of kids today. A lot of them struggle with variations of that lack themselves. In Leepike Ridge, the absence of my character's father drives him to do more than just survive, or defeat the villains. He struggles to fill that father-shaped void in his own life, and come into his own.

WORLD: What kind of child are you writing for?

CHEANEY: I think every children's author writes for the child in himself.

WILSON: Those who are eager to see magic in the world around them. Or those who aren't. I hope I'm writing for every kind of kid, even those Peter Pans out there who might have kids or grandkids of their own, but have managed to keep their imaginations young.

WORLD: What kinds of books did you like to read as kids? If you were still a kid, why would you want to read your book?

WILSON: I read anything that could grip, that presented me with believable, motivated characters and surprised me with tension that made me itch. As to reading my own book, well, I wrote it because it gripped me, because I had a character in my head dragged down into caves, grappling with death. I needed to get him out, so I kept filling pages. A younger me would keep turning pages for the same reason.

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