For most of my writing career, I’ve instituted news blackouts, weeks in which I didn’t listen to, watch, or read the news. When people asked how I could live in blind ignorance, I replied I needed to keep the outside world at bay because I write for children. Daily cycles of news, usually bad, made me forget how five-year-old or ten-year-old kids feel.
In 2020, it became dangerous to ignore the news. We don’t have cable or streaming capabilities — we only watch DVDs on old televisions — so I turned to CNN on my computer to navigate the minefield of Covid-19. Like everyone, I got caught up in the daily surge reports, the numbers of those who’d succumbed, the plight of health workers. Then came the summer BLM protests. Fall brought the election. The news grew more strident and urgent.
At first, I checked CNN each evening. Soon I added mornings in case situations worsened overnight. I kept up the ritual when I had Covid myself and continued the habit (addiction) as a long-hauler. I never knew how many levels of outrage and dismay I could reach until three days in early January.
On Tuesday, I went to the eye doctor. I’d had cataract surgery early in November that didn’t seem to go well but then Covid took over. Failing my eye exam, I was hustled to a retina specialist. Diagnosis: macular edema in both eyes. This explained why words broke into pieces, why edges shimmered, why faces were fuzzy.
The next day I stayed glued to the computer, switching between CNN, MSNBC, and D.C. news channel 4. I still don’t have words for what happened that afternoon, fifty miles from our home.
Thursday my GP called about recent blood work. I must see a hematologist for a bone marrow biopsy. “Okay,” I told myself. “I had cataract surgery, then Covid and have been long-hauling for almost two months. My vision is in the trash and now I might have cancer.” When my husband came home from work, I asked him to take me to Barnes and Noble to browse children’s books, something that always made me feel better.
Not this time.
I hadn’t written in months. Yet each morning, during that misty period between sleep and wakefulness, ideas popped into my mind. New ideas! Old ideas worth polishing! I would get up and work! 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.
In her tiny little book, Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, award-winning children’s author Katherine Rundell remarks that wonder is an essential element in children’s books … and in children’s writers:
“In a world which prizes a pose of exhausted knowingness, children’s fiction allows itself the unsophisticated stance of awe. Eva Ibbotson escaped Vienna in 1934, after her mother’s writing was banned by Hitler; her work is full of an unabashed astonishment at the sheer fact of existence. Journey to the River Sea (2001) has a kind of wonder that other kinds of fiction might be too self-conscious to allow themselves.”
Eva Ibbotson (1925 to 2010) had lupus and could only write a few hours, fingers nearly too stiff to hold a pen. A departure from her “rompy” children’s ghost stories, Journey to the River Sea honored her late ecologist husband. She set the book in South America, a country she’d never visited. If Eva Ibbotson could work saddled with grief and illness, lack of travel resources, and had escaped Nazis, what was my excuse?
Too many months housebound with no outside contact, too much fear, too many problems. I didn’t care about children’s books anymore. Yet deep inside, I cared that I didn’t care. Could I reclaim wonder, not let the world wear me down? In her diary, Anaïs Nin confides her own struggle:
“I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I couldn’t live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living.”
Starting now, I’ll immerse myself in the worlds dreamed up by Katherine Rundell, Eva Ibbotson, and other brave children’s writers new to me. Then I’ll start building a place I can live in, one that will regenerate wonder and awe, and let me write again. Fingers crossed.