Celebrated author Anne Ursu’s newest work, The Real Boy, has been accepted with open arms by middle grade and adult readers alike. Ursu, living with her son Dash, spoke to us about her inspiration, process, and the exciting opportunities that fantasy writing affords her.
Did you read much as a child?
All the time. We’d go to Walker Library [in Minneapolis] most weeks, and I’d take out a huge stack of books. My mom says I’d disappear into my room with them on Friday night and come out on Monday morning with them all read. I think reading was my favorite activity.
Are there particular challenges in writing children’s books?
There’s an idea that writing for kids is somehow easy, but it’s not. Kids are demanding readers—they want your characters and they want your stories, your very best ones. There’s no time to indulge yourself, to make wrong turns, to wander through pastures made of your own words. These stories need to have really solid cores. The benefit is that kids are really open-minded readers; they don’t have preconceived notions of what stories are supposed to be like. So you have so much more room to play around.
What’s the most rewarding part of your day?
My little boy and I sit on my bed every night and read books together. It is my favorite thing ever.
You’ve spoken about your family’s experience with Asperger’s, and its reflection in The Real Boy‘s main character Oscar. Have you learned anything unexpected as you explored it in your work?
My son has Asperger’s and I wanted to write a book that explored what it might feel like to have your brain work that way. I didn’t want to write a direct Asperger’s story, but address it indirectly. And I wanted Dash to have a book where a boy like him got to be a hero. To get into the head of the character, I’d have to try to figure out the why behind so many things—why wouldn’t he like to look people in the eye? I found a study that said it stimulated the fight-or-flight reflex; the brain responds as if it is confronted by a predator. But writing requires becoming your protagonist in a way, and that’s always a profound experience, this one no exception.
What do you hope readers gain from your stories, or fantasy novels in general?
I love fantasy because it functions as a great narrative metaphor. It allows you to write about really big ideas, and to put characters in situations where they have to deal with epic questions like the worth of a human life and personal responsibility and the nature of good. As adults, we can dismiss fantasy and children’s books in general, but fantasy gives kids a ton of credit for being able to think metaphorically and engage with these big ideas. And the fabulous thing about a child reader is if they don’t understand something in a book they’ll read it again. Fantasy often takes kids and puts them in impossible situations and then turns them into heroes, and what more could you want for a child reader?