For more than 30 joyful, challenging years, I’ve written fiction for and about girls — for American Girl and now National Geographic Kids’ new series, Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad. So I can tell you with conviction that the best stories are authentic. They ring true because they are true: They come from memories and real-life experiences. In fact, one of my core tenets when it comes to writing fiction is to trust the power of memories. After all, girls’ real-life experiences are infinitely valuable — and they deserve to be documented.
In my own writing, it is these real-life memories from childhood that often shape my stories. For example, just like Izzy, I was terribly nervous about starting middle school, and I changed my outfit so many times that I nearly missed the bus on the first day. Other times, a person will generously share a memory with me that inspires a story, such as the girl who, like Izzy, froze with stage fright when she was supposed to speak in front of her class.
As moms, we can help our daughters own their stories by encouraging them to document them, or by being their documentarians. When our daughters record their experiences and feelings, it signals to them that what they think and do and feel is worthy of being listened to, taken seriously, and remembered. The affirming message of “Voice your view. Tell your story. It matters. YOU matter.” is crucial because too often throughout history and still today, so many of the things that girls like to do are denigrated by our culture. Their experiences, interests, and achievements are dismissed.
But your daughter is one of a kind. Her quirky, unique take on the world is too precious to lose. She’s creating the story of her own life every day and she has a lot to say about it. What she thinks and feels and hopes for at this very moment should be saved. It’s important — and fun — for you to help her preserve her ideas so that she can revisit them and share them.
So where do you even begin when it comes to recording your daughter’s stories, or encouraging her to document them for herself? You can be her partner in creativity and write as she dictates, or you can create records of your own. For example, you might write her a letter on special days like her birthday, or write captions under photos of moments you want to remember forever. Be sure to save your daughter’s work and your own in a waterproof box, scrapbook, binder, or in a file on your computer. Even if the only person who reads the work later is your daughter when she is older, think how wonderful it will be for her to look back and reflect: How has she changed? What’s the essence of her that has not changed? What was she concerned about that she has conquered, or that she still cares about? What has healed? What has she forgiven? What did she want then? What does she want now?
Don’t let fussy perfectionism discourage her or you. Sometimes the act of sitting down to write is too daunting. Your daughter may be more at ease speaking her story and recording it. Or she may prefer drawing what’s on her mind, or choosing pictures that capture how she feels, or doodling, or making a word web. Encourage her to let loose, to just pour out her ideas. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, handwriting, or typos. Remember that poems don’t have to rhyme! In fact, the more idiosyncratic her creation is, the better. For it to be fresh and original, it must spring from your daughter’s feelings, expressed without being squelched, denied, or ignored. One way to put herself into her writing is to sharpen her senses and apply them all. She might describe not only how rain looks, but also how it sounds, feels, smells, and tastes. The important thing is for your daughter to feel free to create honest content full of true emotion, without self-editing or self-judgment.
There’s plenty of time to tidy up later if she wants to. But mistakes are OK! In fact, in the Izzy Newton series I’m currently writing for National Geographic Kids, Izzy and her brainy, science-loving friends keep a black-and-white marble composition book in which they record their attempts at solving mysteries plaguing their school. The book ends up being a journal of failures, which shows that in science there are lots of false starts, explosions, messes, mistakes, disappointments, and what seem to be flops, just as there are in a girl's life and friendships. Whether it's a science journal or a girl's diary, it's important to pay attention to and record goofs and disappointments so that you can reflect, laugh, vent, and ultimately, learn from them.
Documenting not only preserves your daughter’s perspective; it also changes her perspective. Using words to articulate and images to describe her emotions validates them, and teaches empathy — the ability to recognize how others are feeling. Recording what she observes trains her brain to be better at observing because she will be thinking about how she will express her experiences in order to share them. Voicing her view helps her realize the responsibility — and joy! — of being exactly who she is right now.
But perhaps most important of all, documenting changes your daughter’s perspective on herself: She is a person whose opinions and insights matter and resonate with others. She is an active, engaged, strong, resilient, responsible, positive participant in life who speaks out with enthusiasm to say, Look how cool this is! Pay attention! Isn’t the world great? And she knows that everything that happens to her — everything she thinks or does or hopes for — is important because it is an inspiration for her. So she will nourish and nurture her imagination, keep her senses sharp, be curious, adventurous, compassionate, open-hearted, and open-minded. And most of all, she will continue to express herself so that her ideas will change the world.