Recently, my husband and I listened to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony performed by the Boston Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. It was our first live performance since the pandemic began and it was as glorious as it sounds. (For the record, I don’t consider myself a “classical music person,” just an occasional WQXR listener, yet I found myself in tears.) Moments before the concert, the conductor Ben Zander gave an inspiring talk about listening deeply for the underlying theme in “Ode to Joy.” He then invited the audience to hum a few bars with the orchestra so that we could all say we sang at Carnegie Hall.
Zander brings humor and joy to all of his concerts. The program directed me to a TedTalk he gave several years ago called “The Transformative Power of Classical Music.” (Please watch it! If it’s not the best 20 minutes of your day, I want to know what is.) During his talk, Zander mentioned a revelation he had after conducting for 20 years: The conductor doesn’t make a sound. “My job is to awaken possibility in others,” he said. “Look into people’s eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it right.” His superpower is to empower others. Conversely, Zander says, “Who am I if my players’ [and listeners’] eyes are not shining?”
As a children’s book author, I became obsessed with this idea. Isn’t that our job as well—to make our audience’s eyes shine? To connect with children, to empower them, to make them feel something deeply. Who am I being if I’m not making my readers’ eyes shine?
In other words, how do we create relatable stories and characters that find their way into the hearts and minds of children? Here are a few suggestions that I hope will bring you inspiration.
Be Your True Self
I once heard author Jason Reynolds say, “Only you can tell your story.” Be authentic. What makes you uniquely you? Is it your family, culture, history, abilities, beliefs, talents, fears, quirks,…something else? When you write from your unique perspective—and with your unique voice—your authenticity shows. Children will be more likely to connect with your story.
I’m Jewish and I’ve been writing for children for 30 years. But it wasn’t until 2022 that I published my first two authentically Jewish books. (What took me so long? I’m still processing, but that’s for another post.) I co-wrote MENDEL’S HANUKKAH MESS UP (illustrated by Daphna Awadish, Kalaniot) with my husband Larry Stiefel. It was a truly joyful experience from start to finish. This past Hanukkah, we performed our story in front of hundreds of children. Their delightful cheers for Mendel—our character who always messes up— were infectious.
Writing THE TOWER OF LIFE: HOW YAFFA ELIACH REBUILT HER TOWN IN STORIES AND PHOTOGRAPHS (illustrated by Susan Gal, Scholastic) has been a transformative experience. After reading Yaffa Eliach’s obituary in The New York Times in 2016, I was amazed by her resilience and hope after surviving the unbearable trauma of the Holocaust. Because survivors like Yaffa are passing away, I felt a strong responsibility to bear witness and share her story with the next generation. Yaffa’s journey also spoke to my heart because some of my own family members survived the Holocaust, while many others perished. Illustrator Susan Gal and I shed many tears while creating this book (talk about shining eyes!). Sharing it with children has become both a mission and an honor. (To learn more, watch the 12 x 12 Book Chat interview with Julie Hedlund and me. )
Ramp Up the Conflict
What is your character’s problem? What does she struggle with? What is standing in her way? Are these obstacles relatable to kids? In MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH, my cave girl character is in a volcanic mood because other kids bungle her hard-to-pronounce name. (Yes, that book is semi-autobiographical.) In DADDY DEPOT, Lizzie’s father watches too much football, embarrasses her with his corny jokes, and at bedtime, snores in her ear. No wonder she returns him to the daddy store!
Even if your character is an animal or a piece of fruit, readers must connect with their conflict, whether internal or external. In my newest picture book, BRAVO, AVOCADO! (coming March 28, 2023, from HarperCollins), Avocado strives to be Today’s Special. She sets off on a veggie fun journey to discover what makes her stand out. When I read the story to preschoolers recently, they fully connected with Avocado’s inner struggle and they each shared what makes them special. (“I’m a big brother!” “I play piano!” “I like to swim!”) Lots of shiny eyes and smiles lit up the room!
Heart on the Page
I’m a firm believer that you should be able to identify your character’s emotions on every page. When I read DADDY DEPOT in classrooms, I often pause at the end of each spread and ask, “How is Lizzie feeling now?” Responses include quite a range: Sad, frustrated, angry, excited, motivated, worried, happy, and finally, relieved. Plot an emotional story arc and your audience will feel all of the feels. (For some excellent mentor texts, follow author Sylvia Chen on Instagram. She plots out story arcs with emojis!)
Writing can be brutally hard. Publishing is filled with rejection. So I keep a Post-It with a quote from Jane Yolen next to my computer that reads: “Take joy in the process.” Like Ben Zander, when we conduct (or write) with joy, our writing shines.
I remember feeling absolutely giddy when I completely revised my manuscript that became MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH with a new setting, new characters, and a new point of view. Recently, a mom sent me the most delightful photo—a picture of her daughter dressed up as Wakawakaloch for her school’s Character Day. My heart skipped a beat. A little girl had identified with Wakawakaloch so much that she wanted to become her. Does it get better than that?
And therein lies the magic of connecting with children. Are your eyes shining yet? Let me know! And don’t forget! How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!
Chana Stiefel is the award-winning author of more than 30 books for children. Her most recent picture book, The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs (Scholastic), has received many honors, including the 2023 Sydney Taylor Book Award and a Robert F. Sibert Honor. The Tower of Life has been listed as a Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal, Booklist, the New York Public Library, the Chicago Public Library, Tablet Magazine, and others. Chana loves to visit schools and libraries to share her passion for writing with children. Learn more at chanastiefel.com and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. To hear Chana pronounce her name, click here.
- This giveaway is for a copy of THE TOWER OF LIFE by Chana Stiefel. Many thanks to Scholastic for donating a copy of the book to one of our commenters.
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Congratulations to Joni Lemley who will receive a copy of The Tower of Life.
8 thoughts on “Make Your Audience’s Eyes Shine”
I almost always find more books to read when I read Two Writing Teachers’ Posts. The emphasis on connection, joy, and finding what moves you most is inspiring.
What an inspiring journey! A lovely and thoughtful piece.
I loved reading your post! It definitely made me think about my current practices and how I can better improve! I am excited to try some new things in my classroom! I look forward to your future posts!
Thank you for sharing about your writing! You have offered such wisdom here. Absolutely loved your sharing /description of conductors “His superpower is to empower others” and how this is insightful for writers.
The idea of checking to see if people’s eyes are shining as a measure of if we’re doing things right will stick with me for a long time. It’s making me think about my teaching, as well as all the other roles I play. And I so appreciate all the writing tips. Now I’ve got some picture books to look up and buy!
“What took me so long? I’m still processing, but that’s for another post.” I WANT TO READ THE OTHER POST! 😉
I love spreading the importance of authenticity. The other pieces that go along with that in my opinion are being unapologetic and intentional.
I appreciate the things you shared about connecting with children and finding the joy in the process. Also, just remembering that children need to be able to related to the conflicts they read about in the picture books. I look forward to reading more in your books!
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