The title of this essay comes from a dream I had last night, its memory and meaning caught between mysterious dreamtime and awakening in this harsh end-of-summer world. I was never a wild pony. Only as a writer of children’s books could I ever be one, a dream I’ve held since I was 15, and one that came true.
I’ve had other dreams that didn’t. When I was newly married, I told my husband I wanted to build a library for young children in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We would live next door, in a little house called Bramblewood Cottage. I’d once visited the fairytale cottage Noyes Library in Kensington, Maryland, an enchanted one room library with low bookcases shelved only with picture books. That was the basis for my dream of the library and our house.
We often drove around the hills and hollers of the Blue Ridge, searching for possible sites. The closest my dream became a reality was the Victorian dollhouse I built, the model for Bramblewood Cottage. I painted it blue, glued the window shutters on backward (pointed out too late), and filled it with miniature furnishings for a family of dressed mice.
I harbored another dream from age 15 — that not only would I write children’s books, but also illustrate them. I could teach myself to write and did but needed to go to art school to become a professional illustrator. Some day. The summer I turned 36 and had been a full-time writer of children’s books for seven years, my mother died, a year and a half after my stepfather passed.
I would channel my grief into learning to draw properly.
As the oldest in my community college class of twenty-somethings, I was dismayed when the teacher required us to begin with an 18 by 24-inch sketch pad and charcoal. I hated the texture of the paper and couldn’t bear the feel of raw charcoal sticks. Worse, I couldn’t “use the entire page” and was corrected time and again for drawing (with a pen) in the bottom corner. My classmates were destined for the Corcoran School of Art while I was destined to abandon this dream. I would never be good enough.
My latest dream is the product of magical thinking at the foolish age of 70. For the past five years I’ve worked on a middle grade novel. The book pulled me through Covid twice and long-hauling. It pulled me through my sister’s long, slow decline with the return of her cancer. As long as I wrote and revised the book, a fairy tale about two sisters, we would both stay on this earth. The novel was ready to be launched into the world where I hoped it would go to auction, be acquired as a trilogy, and earn enough so my husband could retire. Imagine how ridiculous I felt when the book was rejected, and the one vaguely-interested editor asked me to gut my story.
My dream was shattered. It coincided with the summer of caring for my sister, now in at-home hospice, her 23-year battle surrendered. I told my agent I was finished with children’s books. I would still write them because that’s what I do, but my lifelong passion for this field was over. I began donating my vast library of children’s books. I quit SCBWI, a member since 1978 and founder of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter. I believed in its mission to promote the joy of making children’s books. Over the last few years, that mission became entangled with politics. I don’t disagree with those politics, only that they are there at all, trampling that original joy. My joy.
Yesterday, after yet another long day driving 100 miles round-trip on I‑95 and relieving my oldest niece — one of many days of round-the-clock care that’s left us exhausted beyond sensation — I told my husband I’d failed. He can’t quit work after all and I didn’t know who I’d be anymore after devoting my entire life to children’s books. I’m not 36 and able to divert grief to an unfulfilled dream. I only want to continue my first dream, but I don’t know how.
Last night I had a dream. Into my hands came a thin, square yellow book, falling apart, its paper-over-cardboard covers sixties-style art. Inside, though, was pure magic.
The book had pen and ink drawings that came to life. Instructions were both written and aural. The book taught you how to write and illustrate picture books by giving you permission to let go. To ignore rules and trends and current politics and open your mind and heart. In my dream, I wrote the words When I was a wild pony. My story galloped across meadows. The yellow book wasn’t mine. Near the end of the dream, I desperately tried to find the author and copyright to order it on Amazon. But the book went on to the next person who needed it.
When I woke, I was crying but also thinking about writing a picture book called When I Was a Wild Pony, in which the narrator would also be a tiger, an elephant, a bear, a raven. What was this dream telling me?
Yesterday, I sat with my dozing sister. She reached for my hand, hers much bigger than mine, her grip warm and strong and fierce. When she woke, she slowly typed on her speaking machine: When you come again, read me a story. I was reminded of the nights when we were young. A heat duct connected our separate bedrooms, and we’d crouch on the floor to whisper to each other. I asked her to tell me stories.
We are near the end now. This summer will be over sooner than we’re ready for and I’m still not sure who I’ll be. Will I write that picture book When I Was a Wild Pony? Or will I let that story be my sister’s?