Kondo was big. Kezumi was little. They came to me in a dream, and possibly the only reason their story was ever written was that my cat woke me up before I found out who they were or what they wanted. All I had an image of a big creature and a little one looking at the ocean (And a cat who wanted ear scritches).
I also had a big opening in my writing schedule. I’d finished the Ginny Goblin books and it was time for something new. So I sat down with my inspiration and tried to turn it into a story.
At first, I thought it would be another picture book, but I pretty quickly realized Kondo and Kezumi were going to need more space than that. They were looking out at the ocean. Why? Because they wondered what was out there, I decided. So they were going to build a boat and go exploring. And that’s not really something you can do in 600 words.
(Oh, you probably could. But I wasn’t going to.)
I wasn’t sure where they were going, either literally or metaphorically. But I was pretty sure who they were.
We pause here for a brief diversion. When my now teenaged nephew was about four years old, he thought I was the coolest person in the world. He was a huge geek who wanted to know everything I knew about Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and particularly about superheroes. But one day, he told me “Superheroes are all boys. Girls can’t be superheroes.”
This was news to me since most of my favorite superheroes are women. Rachel Summers, Storm, Wonder Woman, Two different versions of Batgirl. The list goes on and on.
I resolved two things in that moment. First, I was going to spend the next hour setting my nephew straight, and second I was going to challenge traditional gender roles in anything I wrote.
So I knew one character would be a girl and the other a boy. And the girl would be the driving force, while the boy was the one who wanted to be more careful and cared more about people’s feelings. I gave them different interests and personalities, and I tried to make sure neither one was ever always right or always wrong. Kondo doesn’t always like traveling. He wants to be safe. He wants everybody to be safe. And that’s not bad. Kezumi wants to know everything, and she’s always up for adventure. That’s not always good.
And then they needed names. I thought the big, male character should sound safe and strong and stable. My brain served up “like home. Or like a house. Or… like a Condo.” I made it “Kondo” because switching Cs with Ks makes everything fantasy, almost as much as swapping I’s for Y’s and putting extra apostrophes everywhere.
So I wanted the other character to sound exciting and maybe funny, and to alliterate with “Kondo.” I hit on Kazoos as being fun, and made it Kazoomy, which I changed to Kezumi because that looked less stupid.
(I know everyone likes to think that authors are wise and canny masters of language and symbol, but sometimes it really is just that dumb.)
This was happening in 2017. I think I might have started in late 2016. But even so, there was a lot of ugliness in the world and I didn’t want to add to it. I’ve read a lot of kids books with danger and action and violence. I even have a couple in my metaphorical writing trunk that I might revise and try to sell one of these days. But I couldn’t bring myself to write another one. I wanted a story about compassion and kindness, and I wanted to give that story to kids. (After selling it to a publisher for a nice advance, it was to be hoped.)
So I set myself some goals. I was going to write about curiosity and empathy. And I wasn’t going to let violence ever be the answer. I decided the story would be about discovery and empathy, about overcoming the fear of the Other, and living with people who are different than you.
And I decided it would start with a message in a bottle.
But what would that message be? I tried out a few obvious ones like “come see the world,” or “explore.” Those were good, but they weren’t quite what I wanted to say. But then the right words came to me: We are not alone.
Not “You are not alone.” That’s almost the same message, but it can sound a little threatening, and it focuses on the individual. “You are not alone” means there’s “You” and there’s some other people. And that lets you think, maybe, that those other people are not the same as you, not as important as you, not as REAL as you.
And that thought, that terrible wrong thought, is the seed from which a host of evils grows. Because in all the ways that matter, we are all the same. We have hopes and fears. We feel happy and sad. We all have things to learn. None of us can make it without others.
We are not alone.
Kondo and Kezumi go out to see lots of islands. Silly ones, scary ones, ones made of food. But what they really find on their journey is the meaning of the phrase “we are not alone.” And I hope lots of kids out there learn it, too.