Long ago, on windy, wintry nights, I’d look out the window by my bed as trees shifted for a glimpse of a light deep in the woods. The yellow light—on and off as the wind tossed—kept me up late, wondering. We had no neighbors on the other side of our woods.
It had been years since I last visited the home of my heart, the only place where I can breathe freely. Conicville is in Shenandoah County in the Valley of Virginia, bordered by the Allegheny Mountains. It consists of a church, a cemetery, and a scattering of houses and farms. In 2012, I traveled to meet my 98-year-old cousin. His farm had recently been designated a Virginia Century Farm, land that has been in the same family for a hundred years.
Working on my magical realism middle-grade novel, I realized I couldn’t visualize where my story is located. I could describe immediate buildings, but the landscape was blank. If I couldn’t see it, neither could a reader.
When fairy tale characters step into the woods, they are beset by tests, yet are stronger by the time they find their way out. At the beginning of 2021, I wandered in a deep, dark woods because, as Bruno Bettelheim warns in The Uses of Enchantment, it’s where you go after losing the framework which gives structure to your life.
Mélina Mangal’s Self on the Shelf
I looked on my shelves, wondering which books to highlight. I have several shelves, scattered around the house. Though I am a school librarian, my home shelves are quite fluid, as in, they’re not strictly organized. Books are loosely grouped by format and size, sometimes by genre. I really don’t have that many books (I love to visit the library!),
I hadn’t written in months. Yet each morning, during that misty period between sleep and wakefulness, ideas popped into my mind. In the cold winter light, though, those ideas were revealed as withered and drab. Covid stole more than concentration and motivation. It robbed me of wonder.
This year, Hal Borland’s Book of Days migrates upstairs with me to read during my afternoon rest and before bed. It’s a daily journal beginning January 1, written from his farm in rural Connecticut, meant to help him answer the questions: Who am I? Where am I? What time is it? At 68, I ask those questions, too. Borland’s entries mix mid-70s science with New England lore, his natural observations of the seasons with his own quiet musings.
January 6: Frost flowers fascinate me. They are related to frost ferns, those intricate patterns that formed on windowpanes before we slept in heated bedrooms. Frost ferns were indoor plants, created by the humidity in the room. Frost flowers are wildlings, outdoor grows created by humidity in the starlight.
When I was ten, I wanted to be a detective-veterinarian-artist-writer-ballet dancer. Never mind I couldn’t stay up late, stand the sight of blood, or ever had a single dance lesson. Ten-year-olds view the world as limitless. When I was a teenager, my dreams shifted to more specific: a writer of children’s books and an animator for Walt Disney Studios.
In Wildness is the preservation of the World. ~ Henry David Thoreau
It’s rare a children’s book changes you when you’re an adult. I don’t mean fleeting Harry Potter/Team Edward crossover fandom, but genuine change (as with Watership Down). I was nearly 30 when Jane Langton’s book The Fledgling was published in 1980. At that stage of my not-yet-fledged career, I read children’s books by the boxload and was thrilled to discover a new one by my favorite writer.… more
My first inkling there was a thing called children’s literature came at a yard sale. I picked up a thick green textbook, Children’s Literature in the Elementary School, by Charlotte S. Huck. I marveled at the idea that people discussed and studied the books I loved and planned to write, that children’s books were literature, like Moby Dick.… more
I’m trying hard not to be a Fillyjonk. Honestly, I am. Mrs. Fillyjonk is a character in Tove Jansson’s wonderful Moomintroll series. Fretful Mrs. Fillyjonk needs order in her world. If anything is out of place, or goes wrong, she is flattened by depression and anxiety.
Is anything more out of order than the world we live in now?… more
The only “real” books we had in our house was a small selection of adult novels from the Doubleday Book Club. Mid-century titles such as Panther’s Moon, Lost Horizon, and Wake of the Red Witch piqued my eight-year-old interest until I opened them, dismayed by the tiny print and lackluster dialog. I had a shelf of Golden Books which I’d outgrown.… more
In the beginning, before I found myself within the pages of a book identifying with this character or that one, I listened to my grandmother read aloud from My Book House while surrounded by my eight siblings. The giant, multi-volume anthology contains poetry from Mother Goose to Shakespeare, selections from the Song of Solomon to Christina Rossetti to Robert Louis Stevenson, folk and fairy tales from around the world, Aesop’s fables, as well as some not-as-old previously published stories like The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.… more
It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know
than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.
One would never guess from the following excerpts that a certain nine-year-old would grow up to write more than 50 nonfiction children’s books. This is from my fourth-grade booklet on Florida:
The Cypress swamp is a part of the Everglades.… more
Such is the narcissism of youth that, sadly, one often learns about some important things about a parent only when they have passed on. Such was the case of my mother. Even as I began to publish, she never told me that she had wanted to be a picture book writer. I only learned of that when, after she died, I came upon some manuscripts she had written.… more
I’ve been keen on dinosaurs and Ice Age mammals my whole life, since I read Roy Chapman Andrews’ All About Dinosaurs. When I was nine, I added paleontologist to my string of future occupations (writer, artist, ballet dancer, detective).
My love for Jefferson began when we moved to Fredericksburg in 1996. I was touring James Monroe’s Law Office downtown one day and learned how the building was nearly torn down in 1927 for a gas station when Monroe’s descendant stepped in and turned it into a museum.… more
When I picture myself as a kid, I think of my bedroom in our split-level West Virginia house, a room I loved but had to leave behind at age eleven when my family moved to Maryland. For years, that room was my own little world, my book nook, my place to cuddle my cat Rag, collect china-cat figurines, and, yes, read books about cats.… more
This stack is largely the Self-On-The-Shelf stack of my childhood. There would be stacks of others, as well, you understand. I was surprised how many were missing when I went to pull books for this column, actually. Where were all the Judy Blume books? Where was How To Eat Fried Worms? And, I suppose if I’m really honest, I would need to include a small stack of Guinness Book of World Records from the late seventies…I wore the covers off those books.… more
Every winter I find myself missing Arnold Lobel, a quietly brilliant author-illustrator who left us far too early. I pull out my Lobel I Can Read collection. Frog and Toad Are Friends was published in 1970, the year I graduated from high school, bent on my own career in children’s books. Hailed an instant classic by many far-seeing individuals, Frog and Toad earned a Caldecott Honor.… more
“The Boy chiefly dabbled in natural history and fairy-tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sandwichy sort of way, without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible.” The Reluctant Dragon
Kenneth Grahame wrote “The Reluctant Dragon” as a chapter in his book Dream Days, in 1898, ten years before publishing The Wind in the Willows.… more
A few days ago, I scanned my many bookshelves in anticipation of writing this piece. My charge was to assemble a small stack of books that had significance to me. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll write about my love for mysteries. After all, I spent countless hours as a young girl devouring the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries before moving on to Agatha Christie, Tony Hillerman, and Sara Paretsky.… more
Books swept me away, one after the other, this way and that; I made endless vows according to their lights, for I believed them. (Annie Dillard, An American Childhood)
It’s hard to say which came first: did I adopt traits of the main character in certain books I read, or did I gravitate towards those books because I already had those traits?… more
The first summer my husband and I were married, we went on a picnic. Not an ordinary picnic; I had an agenda. My husband had grown up during World War II, when plane-spotting and mixing yellow food coloring in Oleo was more interesting than reading children’s books.
We spread the blanket on the banks of Goose Creek. I opened the hamper, took out The Wind in the Willows, written by Kenneth Grahame, and read the first chapter aloud.… more
To celebrate our fortieth anniversary this year, we decided to take a Big Trip. My husband suggested Paris. “Cornwall,” I said. “Someplace old.” Not that Paris isn’t old. Instead of a crowded city, I wanted winkles and pasties, lost gardens and standing stones, piskies and Tintagel castle. He agreed and I began putting together a trip that would send us back in time.… more
My first glimpse of Margaret Wise Brown’s house on Vinalhaven Island, Maine, was from a boat. It topped a granite slope, clapboard siding painted the same gray-blue as the sparkling Hurricane Sound. I was so excited I nearly fell overboard. We’d just passed the Little Island that Margaret had made famous in her Caldecott-winning book and I’d spotted a seal dozing on the rocks.… more
Knee-deep in spring! The rabbits will be here soon, rangy after a long winter. They like our yard because we have low bushes good for hiding and we let the lawn go to clover and dandelions. I like to think rabbits feel safe because they have little chance elsewhere. If ever there was an animal with “a thousand enemies,” it’s the cottontail rabbit, a creature I never paid much attention to until Watership Down.… more
One day during this dreary Virginia winter, I came across a talk by Susan Cooper, given at Simmons College in 1980. The talk was titled, “Nahum Tarune’s Book.” To explain the title, she begins by quoting an astonishing passage from the introduction of Come Hither by Walter de la Mare, an anthology of poetry first published in 1923:
In my rovings and ramblings as a boy I had often skirted the old stone house in the hollow.… more
When you walk into our house, you know immediately my husband and I are readers. The dining room is designated as the library, but there are bookcases and books in every single room, including the bathrooms. We subscribe to The Wall Street Journal and the Sunday New York Times, as well as Smithsonian, Audubon, and Sky and Telescope.… more
The first map I remember was flashed briefly on TV, part of a commercial for Story Book Land. It aired on “Captain Tugg,” a local kiddie program. I adored Captain Tugg, so anything he endorsed must be gold. Like the home-movie type kid shows of the 50s and 60s, Story Book Land was a family-owned amusement park. And for my ninth birthday, I was going to Story Book Land!… more
When the director of Hollins University’s graduate program in children’s literature asked me to teach a critical class on the history of children’s book illustrators, I said no. Even with an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College, an MA in children’s literature from Hollins, scores of published books, and years of teaching graduate-level creative classes, I still felt like a fraud.… more
It was the early eighties and I was grappling with my first middle grade novel, a pitiful imitation of Daniel Pinkwater’s Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. The boy in my aptly-titled “The Doomsday Kid” played Dungeons and Dragons and attended a rock concert that ended in a bottle-and-can riot. For “research,” I tried to teach myself D&D and dragged my husband to a Bad Company concert that ended in his temporary deafness.… more
A few weeks ago, I stood at the corner of 37th and Madison Avenue in New York City and gazed longingly at the elegant pink marble building that housed J.P. Morgan’s library, now the Morgan Library and Museum. In late January 2019, the Morgan will host the “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” exhibit. I’m too early.
I only travel to New York every three or four years, but I’ll come back to see this exhibit, even if I have to crawl.… more
… when dead leaves fly like witches on switches across the sky …
In the center of our Wegman’s is all the stuff that is not food. Of course, I head there first. Browsing tea towels and sunflower coasters is my reward from having to shop in the too-big grocery store.
Recently I found a plate among the Halloween décor.… more
In the fifth grade, my best friend and I discovered a tangle of honeysuckle in the scrubby woods bordering our school playground. It would make the perfect recess refuge. All we had to do was pull the honeysuckle from inside the circle of saplings it was twined around, leaving a curtain of vines.
The next day, we sprinted into the thicket and began ripping out vines.… more
In my next life, I’m coming back either as a cat living in our house (think Canyon Ranch for cats), or Melissa Sweet. I’ve followed her career since she illustrated James Howe’s Pinky and Rex (1990). I love this book for its atypical characters (Pinky is a boy who loves pink and stuffed animals, and Rex, his girl friend, is into dinosaurs), but also for Melissa’s fresh-faced characters and bright watercolors.… more
In 1961, when I was nine, I fell under the spell of a crumbling stone tower. It stood on the weed-choked property of the Portner Manor in Manassas, Virginia, catty-corner from my cousin’s house. As a devotee of Trixie Belden books, I craved mysteries the way other kids longed for ponies. Here was a mystery within spitting distance!
My cousin and I talked about the “Civil War look-out” tower until we finally had to climb it.… more
Last September, we drove to an empty lake deep in the Appalachians for a short vacation, a much-needed chance to relax. I longed to escape writing and house chores and cats and reconnect with nature.
When we arrived, clouds draped over the peaks and our room was gloomy. I missed civilization instantly and forced my husband to drive the seven crooked miles back down the mountain to the nearest hamlet so I could hit the Dollar store (the biggest concern).… more
I came down with the flu. After weeks of dragging myself to the computer, I finally listened to the doctor and let myself be sick. One afternoon I pulled out my old journals. I haven’t kept a journal in the last few years, instead a planner dictates my days. My composition notebooks are a mishmash of thoughts, memories, observations, scribblings on books in progress, and notes from writer’s conferences.… more
Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders. Better. Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating. … more
Recently I attended a writer’s conference mainly to hear one speaker. His award-winning books remind me that the very best writing is found in children’s literature. When he delivered the keynote, I jotted down bits of his sparkling wisdom.
At one point he said that we live in a broken world, but one that’s also filled with beauty. My pen slowed.… more
Once, when I discussed my work-in-progress, middle-grade novel with my agent, I told her the character was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protested. “Those are different ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insisted. “The editor will ask you to change it anyway.”
I didn’t finish the book (don’t have that agent anymore, either).… more
For a fiction workshop, I asked participants to bring in childhood books that influenced them to become a writer. Naturally, I did the assignment myself. Choosing the books was easy, but they felt insubstantial in my hands, vintage hardbacks that lacked the heft of, say, the last Harry Potter. When it came my turn to talk, I figured I’d stammer excuses for their shabby, old-fashioned, stamped jackets.… more
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