By Kelly Carey
It can happen when you excitedly present your latest work in progress to your critique group, and they take turns rattling off lists of picture books with your exact plot. Or when you are browsing the shelves at your favorite indie bookstore and find your book idea, with a stunning cover face out, written by someone else. Perhaps it was in a rejection letter from an editor that read “sorry, but we already have a similar book on our list”. The results are a stunning hit to your creative energy that can leave you with the niggling feeling that every idea you’ve ever had has already been done.
The knee jerk response could be to delete the manuscript and snuggle under a blanket with a large bowl of ice cream admonishing yourself for ever thinking that you had a unique idea. I mean how could you really think your idea was original?
Take a breath and realize that while similar plots, themes, settings, and even characters can be found throughout kidlit, it’s your unique voice that puts the originality in the work.
Let’s take bears for example.
Winnie-the-Pooh (published 1926), Little Bear (published 1957), Paddington (published 1958), The Berenstain Bears (published 1962) and Corduroy (published date 1968), are all kidlit books featuring an anthropomorphized bear as a main character. But they happily share publishing success and shelf space because each author gifted their bear with their own unique author voice.
Despite these well-known bears, still even more authors have found their own original voice inside a bear main character. Nancy White Calstrom put her creative musings into Jesse Bear (published 1996) and Karma Wilson presented Bear Snores On (published 2002). What a shame if Bonnie Becker had never sent A Visitor for Bear (published 2008) out on submission because bears seemed unoriginal? What if Jory John’s delightful bear in the Already series (published 2014) never existed because John’s was worried about Winnie or Paddington? What if Ryan Higgins had trashed Mother Bruce (published 2015) because…well…bears?
The kidlit world is enriched because all of these clever bears found a home in a book. Their originality comes in the personality the authors and illustrators gave each bear. In the writing, the author’s tone, style and personal touch honed by a fusion of life experience and writing skill offer up a character as unique as a fingerprint. Each author brings to their bear that special voice, their fingerprint, which makes each of these wonderful kidlit bears unique and original.
Worried that there are too many dragon books? Pirate books? Train books? Princess books?
About ten years ago, an Australian comedy group called The Axis of Awesome presented their theory that dozens of popular songs were written with the same four chords. Apparently concerns about originality can stymie songwriters too! https://www.buzzfeed.com/alanwhite/73-songs-you-can-play-with-the-same-four-chords?utm_term=.gdEdQDqBzV#.ncwx93AlD6 It’s an entertaining and fascinating idea and more proof that the same ingredients don’t necessarily produce the same outcome.
In the case of music, the same four chords have produced songs with vastly different outcomes. The same can be true in your storytelling. We can all play with pirates, on a high seas adventure, searching for treasure, and while our character, setting, plot and themes could arguable be identical, like the chords in those songs, we will still produce original works.
The secret original ingredient is you.
So go ahead.
Write your bear story.
Just make sure his growl has your unique voice.
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