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Caren Stelson

Caren Stelson

Caren Stel­son

The book I wish every­one would read:

I love Make Way for Duck­lings writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Robert McCloskey, and I wish every par­ent and child would read this age­less pic­ture book togeth­er. Why do I love Make Way for Duck­lings? Let me start with the fact that my fam­i­ly is from Boston and Make Way for Duck­lings takes place in the city of Boston. In par­tic­u­lar, the sto­ry focus­es on Boston’s Pub­lic Gar­dens, which is one of my favorite parks in the whole country.

McCloskey’s Make Way for Duck­lings, first pub­lished in 1941, is a warm-heart­ed duck-fam­i­ly clas­sic of two mal­lard-par­ents look­ing for a safe home for their grow­ing brood. It’s not easy to find such a safe home for ducks in the mid­dle of a city.

Make Way for DucklingsOnce the duck­lings hatch and Mrs. Mal­lard teach­es her chil­dren to swim in the Charles Riv­er, it’s time to brave Boston streets and find their way to the Pub­lic Gar­dens, the des­ig­nat­ed spot to meet up with Mr. Mal­lard. Cross­ing a Boston street for either per­son or duck can be chal­leng­ing. One must beware of the “Boston dri­ver.” With wind­ing, nar­row streets and rush­ing traf­fic, true Boston dri­vers under­stand the unwrit­ten rules of the road, such as “allow” at least three cars to run a red light before the next car stops. No won­der Mrs. Mal­lard needs the help of Police­man Michael to help her duck­lings safe­ly cross the road.

Once Mrs. Mal­lard and her brood make the trek to the Pub­lic Gar­den gates, the fam­i­ly can relax, for there in the lagoon on “duck island” is Mr. Mal­lard, wel­com­ing his fam­i­ly to their new home. The island is love­ly, but it’s the Swan Boats as well as real ducks that make me smile. I love rid­ing on the Swan Boats around the lagoon-pond, ped­dled by a strong-legged guide. I can sit back and enjoy the trees and gar­dens against a cloud­less blue sky, and their reflec­tions in the water.

Make Way for DucklingsA few steps away is Nan­cy Schon’s “Make Way for Duck­lings” bronze sculp­ture. Mrs. Mal­lard and duck­lings Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack wad­dle in place, their pol­ished feath­ers glow­ing from years of young chil­dren rid­ing on their backs. Depend­ing on the hol­i­day or events, Mrs. Mal­lard and duck­lings will be dressed in costume.

The last time I was in Boston was just after Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­berg died. In def­er­ence, each duck wore a Ruth Bad­er Gins­berg col­lar — and a mask, since we were still deal­ing with the Coro­n­avirus Pandemic.

Make Way for Duck­lings was pub­lished just as the Unit­ed States entered World War II. Every fam­i­ly prayed to be reunit­ed with fathers, broth­ers, sons who had signed up to fight in a dev­ast­ing war. The mal­lard fam­i­ly reunion must have res­onat­ed with par­ents and chil­dren back then. My own father was one of the “lucky ducks” who came home alive to his Boston fam­i­ly after dead­ly fight­ing in Ger­many. Like the mal­lard duck fam­i­ly, I can see Dad strolling through the Pub­lic Gar­dens and sigh­ing, “I’m final­ly home.”

My phi­los­o­phy is …

Take in the good.” I haven’t always had this atti­tude on life, but it serves me well now.

I grew up in a fam­i­ly phi­los­o­phy that was half opti­mistic, with my father’s “work hard and you will suc­ceed,” and my mother’s “be sus­pi­cious, not every­one is look­ing out for you.”

Per­haps the mix of those two philoso­phies is real­is­tic, but it took years to dis­cern my own approach to life, which now I can tell you is this: Keep your mind and heart open. Find a path to for­give­ness. Trav­el. Make as many friends from around the world as you can. Our plan­et is the only one we have. Embrace it. Care for it. Be a cit­i­zen of the world. Let’s come togeth­er and make this world a more peace­ful place.

Sachiko A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's StoryProud­est moment in my career … 

Well, I have to say it is when my non­fic­tion YA Sachiko: A Nagasa­ki Bomb Survivor’s Sto­ry was longlist­ed for a Nation­al Book Award in 2016 and I was invit­ed to the Nation­al Book Award Fes­ti­val in Mia­mi, Flori­da. There I was on stage with some very big names in lit­er­a­ture. I had to pinch myself. It seemed like a dream.

I nev­er thought I would … 

Here’s how I would fin­ish that sen­tence: I nev­er thought I would trav­el to the Serengeti Plain in Tan­za­nia on a safari and see herds of zebra, giraffe, gazelles graz­ing, hip­pos wal­low­ing in mud­dy rivers, lions sleep­ing on rocks, ele­phants car­ing for their lit­tle ones. In 1981, ours was an amaz­ing jour­ney. My hus­band and I camped out all through the Serengeti. 1981 is a long time ago, but I still remem­ber each day vivid­ly. It was a trip I had always want­ed to take ever since I was ten years old and spent a day in the Nat­ur­al His­to­ry Muse­um in New York City. “Some­day,” I said to my ten-year-old self, “I want to go to Africa,” but as a lit­tle girl, I wasn’t sure it would ever happen.

On safari in Africa

If I could say one thing to my twen­ty-years-younger self, it would be: 

For­get the five-year plan, imag­ine instead.” Who do you want to be, inside and out?

Work towards that vision.

I tell myself every day … 

It’s a new day. What’s one small step for­ward I can take to make this day count?

Sachiko and Caren

Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson

The bravest thing I’ve ever done…

The bravest thing I’ve ever done, was not hitch-hik­ing in Mex­i­co, or white­wa­ter canoe­ing dur­ing the Ver­mont spring run-off, or even liv­ing in Hong Kong for a year. The bravest thing I’ve ever done was fly to Nagasa­ki, Japan to inter­view a woman who sur­vived the Nagasa­ki atom­ic bomb at the end of WWII as a lit­tle six-year-old and write her sto­ry. To enter Sachiko’s sto­ry of sur­viv­ing nuclear war took all the courage I could muster and all the hope that I could con­jure up inside me to believe I could actu­al­ly cap­ture in a book what had hap­pened to her.

The gift of a hanbokThe piece of cloth­ing in my clos­et I can’t let go:

When I was fif­teen years old, my fam­i­ly host­ed two young, beau­ti­ful Kore­an women, whose uni­ver­si­ty choir was on tour and vis­it­ing the U.S. I can’t remem­ber how they arrived in our home for a two-night stay, but I do remem­ber one scene: One of the young women and I were talk­ing in my bed­room. She laid out two han­boks, tra­di­tion­al Kore­an dress­es, on my bed and asked which one I liked most. Each dress was made in the tra­di­tion­al pat­tern, full length to the floor, with a high white band across the chest, thin straps over the shoul­der, cov­ered by a match­ing short jack­et with long, open sleeves. One dress was blue satin, the oth­er pink with gold­en and sil­ver threads woven through and around a back­ground of flow­ers. I point­ed to the pink, gold and sil­ver one and said it was beau­ti­ful. “Try it on,” said the young woman. “It will fit you.” I looked at the dress then at the young woman who was about my height and size. “Please,” the young woman lift­ed the dress up to me. “My grand­moth­er will be so hap­py. She made this dress.” Who could resist dress up? I dropped my clothes and pulled the han­bok over my head. The young woman helped fas­ten me up. All smiles, I care­ful­ly walked down­stairs for a fash­ion show for my par­ents. I twirled around and took a bow. When I returned to my bed­room, I thanked the young woman and began to take off the dress. “It is yours,” the young woman said. “It is my thank you to your fam­i­ly. My grand­moth­er will be so hap­py to know her dress is our gift.” I was speech­less. By the expres­sion on the young woman’s face, I real­ized my inno­cent dress-up game had meant some­thing quite dif­fer­ent to my Kore­an guest. The dress was mine. That was final. Some fifty years lat­er, the pink han­bok with gold and sil­ver threads still hangs in my clos­et. The grand­moth­er who made the dress has sure­ly passed on to the next world. Her grand­daugh­ter who gave me the dress may be a grand­moth­er her­self. But the pink han­bok with gold and sil­ver threads remains unworn, unal­tered, unchanged, cloaked in the mem­o­ry of that scene in my bed­room and the sound of the only Kore­an word I remem­ber, gam­sa­hab­ni­da—thank you.

My Grandmother's HandsI’m cur­rent­ly reading … 

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racial­ized Trau­ma and the Path­way to Mend­ing Our hearts and Bod­ies by Res­maa Menakem.  I’ve been try­ing to deep­en my under­stand­ing of how our bod­ies, ner­vous sys­tem, and our brains have helped or hurt our­selves and each oth­er as we work for racial con­nec­tion and healing.

My favorite hol­i­day tradition … 

is mak­ing pota­to latkes dur­ing the Jew­ish hol­i­day of Han­nukah. Home­made latkes are the best. Make sure they are crispy. Add home­made apple­sauce on the side.

Potato Latkes

Guilti­est plea­sure is… 

Get­ting that urge to make choco­late chip cook­ies for friends and secret­ly sneak­ing cook­ie dough for myself. Don’t tell anyone.

chocolate chip cookies

Reid getting his exerciseWhat I do when I want to feel joy is …

Pick up my iPhone, tap on pho­tos and see pic­tures or videos of my three-year-old grand­son Reid. A recent video that makes me laugh out loud is titled “obsta­cle course.” My son, Reid’s dad, draws a set of lines on the dri­ve­way with a piece of side­walk chalk. The lines are straight, squig­gly, cir­cu­lar, zigzagged, and boxed. “On your mark. Get set. Go!” Reid takes off fol­low­ing the lines, run­ning spin­ning, tip­toe­ing, hop­ping. “Fin­ished!” Reid throws his arms in the air. The video is a stitch. Makes me laugh every time.

One Response to Caren Stelson

  1. Joyce Sidman October 30, 2020 at 7:34 am #

    Tru­ly enjoyed read­ing this. Loved the sto­ry of the Kore­an dress! And Caren, I can imag­ine your anx­i­ety about that trip to Nagasa­ki — such brav­ery to tell that impor­tant story!

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