Children’s author, teacher and scientist HM Waugh on how aspects of her middle-grade novel The Lost Stone of SkyCity were inspired by research into child psychology
In The Lost Stone of SkyCity, HM Waugh’s brave heroine Sunaya faces five Dragon Tests to prove she is a worthy guardian of the princess of the Ice-People. Here, Waugh explains how her own learning led her to create these tests from skills that all children need to succeed.
Picture me in a darkened lecture theatre at the beginning of an intense year of study to become a teacher. And really trying to not think about writing books. At all.
Except inspiration hits. The lecture I’m in perfectly knits with a manuscript I just finished drafting. And now I know how my main character will succeed.
I’d never wanted her to win with unnatural strength or an astounding ability with some archaic weapon. I wanted her to be successful even though she failed, successful because she got back up and tried again. And here was my lecturer talking about the importance of resilience, about how multiple studies had all come up with the same four things kids needed to thrive.
And (spoilers) those things didn’t include uncanny swordsmanship or epic horseriding.
Everything came together in my head. I wanted my book to not just entertain, but also subtly help kids. And if they could absorb these strength-building skills from a teacher, why not from a character in a book?
What do kids need to thrive?
Research points to four main needs that, when met, are powerful indicators of happy and resilient children:
These four needs, plus resilience itself, equals five.
My heroine had to pass five tests to succeed. See why I got excited?
We all want to belong, to have at least one person who believes in us. That can look like a teacher who greets you at the door and notices when you’re not doing so well. A classroom where respect runs two ways and students feel safe to be themselves.
In a book it can be a character who thinks of others and how her actions can impact the larger group. Who draws belief in herself from the confidence others have in her.
It’s powerful to know you’re good at something, that you can problem-solve or work well in a group or write a great poem. In a classroom, this starts with engaging lessons that provide opportunities for success. With content that’s challenging without seeming impossible, so a student can develop that belief that they are capable and talented.
It can be similar in a book. A talent the character is unprepared for, a mentor who believes in her, small victories that give her a feeling of self-worth. A great challenge where she has to accept what she can do, be brave and try.
Children, especially in upper primary and above, are exploring their ability to control their own worlds and make their own decisions as they head towards adulthood. Giving children opportunities to make their own decisions and providing an environment of mutual respect are examples of actions that aid the development of independence.
In a book a character can suddenly be in charge of her decisions, free to choose her path and learn from her mistakes.
Doing positive things for the environment or helping those less fortunate can connect and motivate us, telling us we’re part of something bigger. That we can make a difference. Development of empathy is key and can be fostered by actions like helping a charity or undertaking random acts of kindness.
Books are an important way to help develop empathy because they let you experience life from another perspective. My main character tries to see things from others’ points of view before judging, and wants to help out where she’s able.
All these four needs, when met, create an environment where a child can thrive. Where they might get knocked down but they have the internal strength and belief in themselves and the future to get back up and try again.
In The Lost Stone of SkyCity I made sure my characters failed along the way. Whether they succeeded in the end absolutely centred on whether they had developed resilience.
How books help
The inspiration that hit me that day, that coalescing of ideas I hadn’t known the names for, came to me through formal study. Within the pages of a textbook. Through the words of journal articles. But the fact that I knew the heart of it already? That was aided by my love of books. Books for fun, that not only entertained but helped me understand life, too.
I’ve tried to produce a book that can have a similar impact, where that acquisition of understanding is not even noticed by the reader because it’s cloaked in fantasy and adventure.
Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (2014). Environments where children thrive: The circle of courage model. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 23(3), 10–15.
McDonald, T. (2013). Classroom Management: Engaging Students in Learning (2nd ed.). South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.