Kids take their fantasies seriously. They want to build imaginary worlds where they are the hero. They want their imaginary worlds to make sense, to be detailed, rich, cool, fun and exciting. They often want to share their imaginary world with friends or siblings and they are more than willing to tweak their world building to include them – sometimes as a co-hero, sometimes as a rival, sometimes as a sidekick, and sometimes as a fellow traveler. Watching kids build worlds is a pleasure. It seems effortless how they incorporate new ideas into their process.
Kids will invest incredible amounts of time and energy building the often twisted logic that underpins their imaginary world. They will establish rules and relationships that can be surprisingly complex and often hilarious, and they will immerse and transport themselves into their world whenever they can.
I believe this is more than just a creative desire. The design of their world, the rules they create and the play patterns between the characters they allow inside and the missions and objectives - from coordinated rescues to battles, treasure hunts, safaris, party and saving the princess, prince, pod-people or planet – reflect their own, real-world interests, concerns, observations and psychological development.
I remember when I was a kid. My mother became very I’ll and nearly died. It was traumatic and I did not fully grasp what it would mean to me if she did. I knew it would be bad and I knew I would be sad, and I felt powerless to stop it. Out of this traumatic situation I invented the story of Barker McGee – a fish who loses his parents to a fisherman’s net when he is a young child. Barker grows up alone and becomes mean and tough and bitter, until one day when a young fish seeks his help to free his own parents from a fisherman’s net. The memory Barker had spent a lifetime trying to erase comes back in full force, and he feels helpless once again. He reacts in anger at first, then suffers a crisis of confidence. Finally, he decides to help the young fish because he empathizes. He doesn’t want the little guy to suffer like he did. So he agrees to help and fails again! Now, in a test of his fortitude, he digs deep and manages to free the little fish’s parents (and many others) from the fisherman’s net. In doing so he frees himself from the burden of guilt he had been carrying for most of his life. Barker then gives up his life as a lonely and bitter recluse and reintegrates with society. He is reborn and starts to live, love and laugh again.
I was eleven years old when this happened. I wrote and illustrated my first draft Barker McGee while she was in the hospital. I didn’t know it at the time but the idea for the story was born out of my child-like need to figure out how to deal with the loss of a parent. I thought I was just writing a story. Selfishly, I suppose, and subconsciously, I made it all about me. I was Barker. I was going to suffer from the loss of my mother. So I made Barker a hero who could and did save someone – even if it wasn’t his own parents. I created a world where – even if I was powerless to save my mother, I could still save someone. I think I needed to believe that I could do such a thing. I didn’t want to accept that I had no power at all.
Writing Barker McGee was cathartic. It was important to me that I get it done and done right. I put all my passion into it and it was my world for a while. The final book – lovingly illustrated in pencil crayon and ink – captured my teacher’s attention and he put it on display in the school display shelf near the front entrance. I never got the book back at the end of the school year, though. I regretted that for decades. The book was valuable to me. So, In 1999 I rewrote it, this time in verse. I could not let the idea go and after 25 years I finally had a copy of barker McGee in my hands. Weird as it sounds, it was closure.
World building is important to kids. They build worlds that are reflections of their own egos, problems, interests, ideas, and personalities. There is great soul satisfaction in birthing an idea and letting it run away from you, then chasing it until you catch up, only to have it zig and zag and veer off in directions you never imagined it would go. Yet somehow, in the end it ends up just where it needs to be and the best part is, you get to visit that world any time you want. The more fully realized it is, the quicker you can enter it and the more you can do in it. How satisfying is that?
Full disclosure, I still visit many of worlds that I created in my mind decades ago. I do it often, too, because it is fun.
If that makes me seem childish, I’ll take that as a compliment.