This is one of those questions that you see posed in many workshops about picture book writing. I most really saw it in the workshop with agent Sean McCarthy at the Kansas-Missouri Regional Conference. The way the question is posed is this:
What is your story about?
What is it really about?
If you are anything like me, this is the sort of thing that can leave you scratching your head. You know your story has to have layers. You know there’s a plot and a theme. Why is everyone making it so complex?
Then I read Borders by Thomas King, illustrated by Natasha Donovan. Admittedly, I had to sleep on it but by morning I got it. Really got it.
Do I really need to say this? Just in case someone is feeling fussy today. From here on PLOT SPOILERS.
Borders is a story about a boy and his mother travelling from Canada to the US to visit his sister in Las Vegas. That’s the simplest and shallowest explanation.
Borders is also about identity. It is about what we are forced to say about ourselves by those in power even if it is not how we identify.
How can the book be about both of these things? Because the young narrator and his mother are on a trip to visit his sister in Las Vegas. They are traveling from Canada. But they are also Blackfoot.
When the border guards ask for their nationality, Mom insists on giving one and only one answer. They are Blackfoot. It is simple. And, it is the answer.
But it isn’t the answer that the border guards want. It isn’t the answer that they insist on.
And yet, it is a legitimate answer. I’m not going to tell you how the story is resolved. For that information, you have to read it yourself. Like I said, plot spoiler not climax spoiler.
So, what is your story about? What is it really about? You might have to sleep on it but you should be able to answer both questions.