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Archive | Big Green Pocketbook

The Books We Keep Forever

J.R.R. Tolkien Maker of Middle-EarthA 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. You see, I read The Lord of the Rings when I was thir­teen. After­ward, I moved to Mid­dle-earth and stayed the next eleven years. I drew pic­tures of hob­bits and Gan­dalf and thumbed to page 126 in The Return of the King again and again to expe­ri­ence the most thrilling sen­tence in Eng­lish literature—“Rohan had come at last.”

I have sev­er­al copies, includ­ing the 70s hard­cov­er edi­tions in slip­case, a heavy one-vol­ume edi­tion I read with the book propped on a pil­low, and the movie-based ver­sions. But the books I prize most are the 1967 Bal­lan­tine mass mar­ket paper­back edi­tions with Bar­bara Remington’s strange cov­er art. Orig­i­nal­ly, I checked out each vol­ume from the library, read it in school, in bed, in the car, as I walked, and returned it fever­ish­ly pray­ing the next vol­ume would be on the shelves. When I found the paper­backs in the first book­store in Fair­fax, I near­ly faint­ed. My very own Lord of the Rings!

Lord of the Rings

The fan­ta­sy made me want to tell every­one about the tril­o­gy and at the same time tell no one. I want­ed Tolkien’s mas­ter­piece all to myself. This is a com­mon notion among bib­lio­philes. In her mem­oir, My Life with Bob: Flawed Hero­ine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, Pamela Paul writes, “I con­sid­ered cer­tain books mine, and the idea that oth­er peo­ple liked them and thought of them as theirs felt like an intru­sion.” I also want­ed more Lord of the Rings, but there wasn’t any. And The Hob­bit didn’t cut it.

Those paper­backs went every­where with me, house to house, state to state. In each move, things got left behind: year­books, my high school diplo­ma, my mother’s kitchen table, the dress I was mar­ried in (not a wed­ding dress). But nev­er Lord of the Rings.

boy reading while walking to school

On my last morn­ing in New York, I wan­dered around the Upper West Side with chil­dren walk­ing to the var­i­ous P.S.’s and pri­vate schools I’d read and won­dered about in books like Har­ri­et the Spy. They walked with par­ents and nan­nies and baby broth­ers. They walked with friends and dogs and sib­lings on scoot­ers. These three chil­dren stayed ahead of me. At first I thought the boy was star­ing at a device. But he was read­ing a book! He wasn’t catch­ing up on home­work, he turned the pages too fer­vent­ly. His book was so engross­ing, he couldn’t put it down.

In an essay in the Octo­ber Harper’s, William Gass writes of his beloved Trea­sure Island, a cheap paper­back that saw him through “high school mis­eries,” went with him to col­lege, and was stowed in his Navy duf­fle dur­ing WWII. Despite the yel­lowed, brit­tle pages, Gass admits, “That book and I loved each oth­er.” He doesn’t mean the text, but the phys­i­cal book. Books on a screen, he main­tains, “have no mate­ri­al­i­ty … off the screen they do not exist … they do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only wait to be remade, relit.” I can’t imag­ine squint­ing at The Lord of the Rings on a Kin­dle, try­ing to find page 126 in the third vol­ume, unable to lose myself in Remington’s cov­er art that forms a trip­tych when the indi­vid­ual books are lined up.

As a child in the 80s, Pamela Paul sought vin­tage “yel­low back” Nan­cy Drews. The orig­i­nal 30s blue spine books were too old, and the new paper­backs were “loath­some.” She pre­ferred the 60s edi­tions with their inte­ri­or draw­ings and “broody cov­er paint­ings.” The qual­i­ty of the paper, the bind­ing glue, the end papers made the book a trea­sured object, “the vase as much a plea­sure as the flow­ers.”

The books we keep for­ev­er are the ones we owned back when buy­ing a book was a big deal. When we made the effort to track down spe­cial edi­tions. When we would walk and read because the book would not leave our hands. I hope the book that New York school­boy was read­ing was chang­ing his life, that it was his, and that he would keep it for­ev­er, no mat­ter where he went in life.

After high school, I got a job as a sec­re­tary. I hung a poster of Remington’s Lord of the Rings cov­er art over my desk. (Clear­ly, I was not your aver­age sec­re­tary). At the age of 24, I decid­ed it was time to leave Mid­dle-earth. This com­ing Jan­u­ary or Feb­ru­ary, I’ll return to New York to see Tolkien’s orig­i­nal papers and draw­ings and maps. Mean­while, I’ll re-read my Bal­lan­tine paper­backs. The door to Mid­dle-earth is always open.

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Tonight is the Night …

… 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. 

Halloween plate

Recent­ly I found a plate among the Hal­loween décor. I didn’t need a Hal­loween plate but this one made me stop. The design remind­ed me of the lit­tle treat bags peo­ple gave out on Hal­loween, filled with pop­corn balls or home­made cook­ies (yes, the old­en trick-or-treat­ing days were bet­ter).  Hal­loween was my favorite hol­i­day when I was a kid. I pulled out my witch cos­tume in August. I drew pic­tures of haunt­ed hous­es. At nine, I want­ed to be a witch liv­ing in a haunt­ed house.

Blue-Nosed WitchAfter I grew up, Hal­loween, slammed against Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas, slid back. (East­er is now my favorite hol­i­day, because you don’t have to do any­thing, because it’s spring, because the col­ors and bun­nies are cheer­ful.)

As I stared at that orange and black plate, a door opened, just a sliv­er and just for an instant. I was nine again, flap­ping through our house in my pur­ple (prob­a­bly flam­ma­ble) witch’s cape, eager for Hal­loween even though school hadn’t start­ed yet. What a deli­cious feel­ing, all shiv­ery and excit­ing at the same time.  Then the door shut, and I had to think about let­tuce and cat food and show­er clean­er.

Although I’ve been writ­ing children’s books for near­ly forty years and have spent more years read­ing children’s books or writ­ing about children’s lit­er­a­ture, I have increas­ing­ly lim­it­ed access to my own child­hood. Mem­o­ries fade due to age, med­ica­tion, and Great Big World Prob­lems. It’s hard­er to keep the door to child­hood open when you’re wor­ried about lab results, tax­es, and frack­ing.

This past sum­mer, I taught my last sum­mer term at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty. My final class in the Children’s Lit­er­a­ture Grad­u­ate Pro­gram was the his­to­ry of children’s book illus­tra­tors. My stu­dents, most­ly young illus­tra­tors, set­tled into this course as if they’d come home.  

Bedknob and BroomstickThey loved see­ing the ground-break­ing work of Wan­da Gâg and Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton. They loved the sur­prise of Leo Lion­ni and oth­er mod­ernists. They loved the ver­sa­til­i­ty of Mar­cia Brown and the Dil­lons. In each class, a stu­dent would gasp or smile with recog­ni­tion dur­ing the dis­cus­sion of an artist or spe­cif­ic pic­ture book. I could almost see the door swing open. “My moth­er read me that book!” Or, “My grand­moth­er had that book! I for­got about it!”

Most of my stu­dents weren’t that far removed from their child­hoods. But they were so tight­ly focused on learn­ing craft and tech­nique that they had lost track of why they chose this field. It’s not enough to “love children’s books” (though we do). As cre­ators, we must stay con­nect­ed to the child inside.

One of my stu­dents pref­aced her final paper with this quote by Howard Pyle, illus­tra­tor and founder of the Brandy­wine School: “The sto­ries of child­hood leave an indeli­ble impres­sion, and their author always has a niche in the tem­ple of mem­o­ry from which the image is nev­er cast out to be thrown on the rub­bish heap of things that are out­grown and out­lived.” 

HalloweenThose sto­ries may be for­got­ten, buried at the bot­tom of mem­o­ries that are more imme­di­ate, until the unex­pect­ed moment that sin­gle, indeli­ble image ris­es to the top. For me, a $7 plate in a gro­cery store gave me a glimpse of past Octo­bers, and the mem­o­ry of the books I read back then that let me expe­ri­ence shiv­ery, excit­ing feel­ings any day of the year.

Yeah, I bought the plate I didn’t need, but some­how did. My old Hal­loween books keep it com­pa­ny, along with Har­ry Behn’s Hal­loween, illus­trat­ed by Greg Couch, a poem some of us remem­ber from school … 

…When elf and sprite flit through the night on a moony sheen.

It’s delight­ful­ly witchy—look the rest of it up for Hal­loween! 

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The Need for Secret Places

honeysuckleIn 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. Hon­ey­suck­le, we learned, often grows with poi­son ivy. When we were no longer coat­ed in calamine lotion, we fin­ished our hide­out. Each recess, we dashed down the hill when the teacher wasn’t look­ing and zipped into Hon­ey­suck­le Hide­out. Hav­ing a secret place at school, where we were cor­ralled by adults, gave us an exhil­a­rat­ing sense of free­dom.

Until the day three sixth graders invad­ed our Hide­out. The pres­ence of sneer­ing, old­er girls shat­tered our pri­va­cy. Our haven sud­den­ly seemed child­ish and the pow­er we’d felt spy­ing on oth­ers dimin­ished in an instant. We were back in the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion of ordi­nary kids.

Although I had my own room at home, I made a den from a blan­ket-cov­ered card table, cob­bled a makeshift play­house inside my clos­et, and claimed the nook behind the fur­nace in our base­ment. In these places I felt safe and seclud­ed. The books I read fueled the need for secre­cy: the gate­house-turned-club­house in the Trix­ie Belden mys­ter­ies, the Melendy sib­lings’ Office in The Sat­ur­days, the dumb­wait­er Har­ri­et the Spy squeezed into, the Bor­row­ers’ realm beneath the floor­boards.

four books

Once, I spread a tarp inside a roll of unused chick­en wire sit­ting along one side of our gar­den. I crawled inside. Rag­weed and tall grass cloaked the fence roll from view. The tarp floor smelled musty. I tucked a box of Milk Duds and my library book in a fold at one end. The cat joined me. We whiled away sum­mer after­noons as bum­ble­bees drowsed in the clover and a thrush sang sweet­ly deep in the woods.

I didn’t know then that place-mak­ing helped con­nect me to the plan­et. Qui­et and hid­den, I began to under­stand I was part of the larg­er space shared by the bum­ble­bees, the thrush, and the cat. I con­tin­ued to cre­ate these sanc­tu­ar­ies no mat­ter where I lived. As poet Kim Stafford said in his essay, “A Sep­a­rate Hearth:” I would take any refuge from the thor­ough­fare of plain liv­ing … there I pledged alle­giance to what I knew, as opposed to what was com­mon.

The geog­ra­phy of our pasts is lit­tered with snow forts and retreats beneath rhodo­den­dron bush­es, tree hous­es and havens under front porch­es. Secret spaces, no mat­ter how tiny or crude, expand to accom­mo­date kids’ fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Children’s den-mak­ing, says Col­in Ward in The Child in the City, car­ries over into adult­hood. “Behind all our pur­po­sive activ­i­ties, our domes­tic world, is this ide­al land­scape we acquired in child­hood.” I still carve out sanc­tu­ar­ies to escape dish­es and laun­dry and, nowa­days, the inva­sion of email.

In my 1920s themed sit­ting room, the small­est room in our house, I sit on the floor sur­round­ed by vin­tage children’s books, old per­fume bot­tles, and McCoy vio­let pots filled with col­ored pen­cils. I write notes using my grandfather’s cedar chest as a desk, read, or work on art projects. Each evening, I wind down in this cozy room and let the day waft out the win­dow.

Secret PlacesWhere do today’s chil­dren craft their pri­vate spaces? I nev­er see kids in my neigh­bor­hood build­ing forts or play­hous­es or even sit­ting under a tree. As Eliz­a­beth Good­e­nough says in her book, Secret Spaces of Child­hood, “With­out a cor­ner to build a world apart, [chil­dren] can’t plant what [author] Diane Ack­er­man calls ‘the small crop of self.’”

Many kids escape adults in their bed­rooms, holed up with lap­tops or Play Sta­tions. Apps and games let chil­dren cre­ate mar­velous king­doms. A house made of sticks can hard­ly com­pete with, say, the sophis­ti­ca­tion of Fortnite’s “Loot Lake.” Yet a space of the child’s own mak­ing pro­vides soli­tude and expands to accom­mo­date fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Secret places in games are bound­ed by adult-cre­at­ed rules, the prod­uct of some­one else’s imag­i­na­tion. Those seem­ing­ly lim­it­less options are con­tained in a box.

How will chil­dren find their place in the world in front of screens? Hands tap­ping plas­tic keys can’t feel the fiber tough­ness of hon­ey­suck­le vines or the rough sur­face of a sun-warmed tarp. Eyes focus­ing on flick­er­ing avatars can’t track the up-and-down flight of a blue­bird. The player’s sense of iden­ti­ty, dis­guised in a “skin,” is mere­ly a reflec­tion in the glass.

Bet­ter to seed that small crop of self with books which give a child ideas, words that flour­ish into men­tal pic­tures, and send her out the door to build her own pri­vate king­doms.

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Some Illustrator!

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.

Then I heard her speak at a con­fer­ence in 2005 about illus­trat­ing The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacque­line Davis. I was enchant­ed by the col­laged snippets—maps, music notes, handwriting—among her water­col­or illus­tra­tions. One dou­ble-spread show­cas­es a dried frog, a nest with eggshells, a dried lizard, lichen, a tiny skull. An insa­tiable col­lec­tor, she used what was in her stu­dio.

I too am a col­lec­tor. I have at least 20 vin­tage suit­cas­es filled with old mag­a­zines, pho­tos, office sup­plies, scrap­books, bought because peo­ple dump greet­ing cards, pho­to­graph albums, report cards and I have this pathet­ic need to res­cue unwant­ed fam­i­ly mem­o­ra­bil­ia.

Candice Ransom Mixed Media Collage

Can­dice Ransom’s mixed media col­lage

I was mov­ing away from scrap­book­ing to making—well, weird stuff. See­ing Melissa’s work, I real­ized I was cre­at­ing mixed-media col­lages with her­itage pho­tographs (I nev­er scrapped reg­u­lar pho­tos, like trips to Dis­ney World, because I nev­er went any­where). Melis­sa uses col­lage to “say what I need to say.”

Each book got bet­ter: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pip­pin, A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams (both writ­ten by Jen Bryant), Fire­fly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (writ­ten by Paul B. Janeczko). Then Melis­sa wrote and illus­trat­ed Bal­loons Over Broad­way, about Tony Sarg, pup­peteer and cre­ator of the Macy’s parade bal­loons. She made toys and pup­pets to under­stand what it “felt like to be in Sarg’s world.” I pored over the art, real­iz­ing how com­mit­ted Melis­sa was to the research and her illus­tra­tions. She takes no short­cuts.

In The Right Word, she stepped up her game. The assem­blages in the final dou­ble-spread caused my head to explode. And then … Some Writer! The Sto­ry of E.B. White, a mash-up of old­er kids’ non­fic­tion, pic­ture book, and scrap­book. After I came to from swoon­ing, I car­ried it around and made peo­ple look at it. Much of the art is con­tained in shad­ow box­es, like those of Joseph Cor­nell. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the scene of Wilbur at the fair.

Being a Melis­sa Sweet fan, I’ve learned it’s pos­si­ble to com­bine research, art, words, and found things into a project. A few years ago, I began mak­ing scrap­books for my nov­els, a sort of illus­trat­ed out­line. From mag­a­zine clip files, I choose images that rep­re­sent a char­ac­ter or scene. By not try­ing to match an image to what’s in my head, I keep the sto­ry mine. I add bits of dia­log and descrip­tion. If the sto­ry changes, that’s okay. I just keep mov­ing for­ward in both the scrap­book and the writ­ing.

The book I’m work­ing on now is com­plex in set­ting, char­ac­ters, and plot. I’ve start­ed a new scrap­book, but the vin­tage and mod­ern mag­a­zine images don’t seem to be enough. It needs real art. I’m not an artist, but I decid­ed to include a drawn ani­mal char­ac­ter, sort of the way Melis­sa Sweet com­bines water­col­or paint­ings and col­lage. Draw like she does! But her art is decep­tive. I gnawed my fin­ger­nails study­ing the expres­sive slant of the dog’s ears in Tupe­lo Rides the Rails. It looks easy—it’s not.

Illus­tra­tor Tri­na Schart Hyman once wrote about try­ing to copy the style of Tomie dePao­la. In ten min­utes, she fig­ured, she’d whip up a “Tomie” draw­ing. “Six hours lat­er sweaty, frus­trat­ed, and thor­ough­ly puz­zled, I tore up the thir­ty-eighth ruined piece of paper in despair,” she admit­ted. His folksy style and child­like col­or was more sophis­ti­cat­ed than she real­ized. If an accom­plished artist like Tri­na Hyman couldn’t imi­tate Tomie dePao­la, there was no hope for me to draw a Melis­sa Sweet-type cat. One pen line on my fin­ished scrap­book page, and it would be ruined.

Pag­ing through The Sleepy Lit­tle Alpha­bet by Judy Sier­ra, I noticed Melis­sa Sweet’s clouds. They appear to be pen­ciled on graph and loose-leaf paper, cut out, and past­ed on water­col­or skies. I could draw cats on note­book paper, snip out one that isn’t too awful, and paste it in my scrap­book! Using unim­por­tant paper makes the draw­ing seem less pre­cious and should lessen my anx­i­ety.

In her author’s note for Bal­loons Over Broad­way, Melis­sa stress­es she tried to con­vey the sense that her sub­ject was hav­ing fun. “[Sarg’s] lega­cy reminds me that ‘play’ may be the most impor­tant ele­ment in mak­ing art!” A sense of play is a hall­mark of Melis­sa Sweet’s work. A les­son for all of us who make children’s books!

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Pumpkins into Coaches

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. Fight­ing bri­ars, we thrashed our way to its base. Ivy cloaked the three-sto­ry red sand­stone struc­ture topped with gap-toothed bat­tle­ments. Up close we noticed port­holes and arrow slits. Some of the spi­ral steps out­side the tow­er had caved in. We strad­dled the gap­ing hole, half-expect­ing a bony hand to grab our ankles, and crawled to the top.

The two upper floors had col­lapsed, but the round walls were intact, cov­ered with creamy wall­pa­per and fad­ed squares where pic­tures had once hung. We crept back down the steps and peered into the hole, cer­tain a tun­nel con­nect­ed the tow­er to the estate gate­house. Then we flailed through the bram­bles as if chased by Portner’s ghost. Back at my cousin’s, we threw our­selves on the ground, sweaty and vic­to­ri­ous.

The “Civ­il War” tow­er real­ly dat­ed to 1882 when the man­sion was built. But even if we’d known that fact as kids, we wouldn’t have cared. Man­as­sas was steeped in his­to­ry, but we traipsed through the decades, mix­ing rock­ets and can­nons with gos­sip and make-believe in our dai­ly play. We heard our grand­fa­ther, who’d been an under­tak­er long before we were born, say cryp­ti­cal­ly that dur­ing the Depres­sion “peo­ple were too poor to die,” and won­dered what hap­pened to those peo­ple. Every­thing was a mys­tery.

An American ChildhoodIn An Amer­i­can Child­hood, Annie Dil­lard wrote, “We chil­dren lived and breathed our [city’s] his­to­ry … We knew bits of this sto­ry, and we knew none of it.” My cousins and I knew bits of our town’s sto­ry and yet none of it. Geog­ra­phy was a tool to suit our pur­pos­es. We raced around the near­by bat­tle­field, dodg­ing mon­u­ments, our games shaped more by our imag­i­na­tions than what had actu­al­ly hap­pened there.

In the field between the lum­ber yard and my cousin’s house, we turned over stones, hop­ing to find arrow­heads or cement-col­ored minieˊ balls. We chased milk­weed fairies to make mod­est wish­es and, once, mar­veled at a clutch of speck­led killdeer eggs rest­ing in a peb­ble nest. Our sneak­ers pressed into the past, kicked up the red dust of the present, and point­ed toward the future. We walked, as Dil­lard said, “obliv­i­ous through lit­tered lay­ers” of his­to­ry, tres­pass­ing, run­ning across oth­er people’s yards. We owned that town.

Now I live in Fred­er­icks­burg, Vir­ginia, a town even rich­er in his­to­ry. I step across the same cob­ble­stones where Wash­ing­ton and Jef­fer­son once walked. Five major bat­tles ripped through here dur­ing the Civ­il War. I wouldn’t expect kids today to won­der about Jef­fer­son or Chan­cel­lorsville as they dri­ve down Route 3. But I don’t see their sneak­ers touch the ground much, either, except dur­ing soc­cer and soft­ball games.

Where are their mys­ter­ies? Do they weave Wal­mart and Dol­lar Gen­er­al into their free play? Movies and TV bom­bard kids with enough toys, cos­tumes, and spin-offs to fuel “imag­i­na­tive” play into the next mil­len­ni­um. Why would they scrounge for arrow­heads when they have the lat­est Hap­py Meal toy to keep them enter­tained for five sec­onds? Or the thrill of a flashy new app on their screens? What do they own?

Know you what it is to be a child?” Frances Thomp­son wrote in 1909. “It is to turn pump­kins into coach­es, and mice into hors­es, low­ness into lofti­ness, and noth­ing into every­thing.”

Port­ner Manor was turned into a nurs­ing home in the late 60s. After stand­ing 86 years, the “look-out” tow­er was torn down in 1978. The nurs­ing home moved to bet­ter facil­i­ties, and the man­sion fell to neglect. It’s for sale now, pos­si­bly head­ed for the wreck­ing ball.

When I recall that twi­light climb all these years lat­er, I’m not sure if I real­ly saw the creamy wall­pa­per, or made it up in height­ened antic­i­pa­tion, or dreamed it. But I can still see dusty pink cab­bage ros­es in my mind’s eye (though I ques­tion wall­pa­per­ing the inside of a round stone tow­er).

Most­ly I remem­ber the smooth sand­stone steps beneath my sneak­ers, the sun-warmed walls against my palms, the deli­cious floaty feel­ing in my stom­ach, and those lofty sum­mers when we turned noth­ing into every­thing.

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Unexpected Wonder

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). I raced through the aisles grab­bing snacks, note­books, pens, and word-search puz­zle books. We’d come to unwind, but I’d dragged my Rest­less Self with us. 

I chose this spot not just for its seclu­sion but also because of the lake’s mys­tery. Every 50 or 100 years, Moun­tain Lake per­forms a dis­ap­pear­ing act.  Sci­en­tists believe it drains itself and, when con­di­tions are right, fills again by springs beneath the lake bed. Yet after years of tests, they still aren’t sure. Well, I want­ed to know for sure. In addi­tion to Rest­less Self, I also brought along Nosy-Got-To-Learn-More-Right-Now Self (yes, the car was crowd­ed). Why did the lake emp­ty? I grilled the poor guy run­ning the gift shop. When was it com­ing back?

Like many of us, I look up stuff before I’ve fin­ished think­ing of it. Lack of a smart­phone doesn’t slow me down—I run upstairs to my com­put­er so fast I could medal in track. But the sat­is­fac­tion of fer­ret­ing a fact in sec­onds doesn’t last and some­times flat-out ruins the won­der of not know­ing. 

Gone-Away LakeOn the edge of sleep that night, I real­ized why I’d picked such a remote place: a children’s book, of course. Gone-Away Lake (1957) by Eliz­a­beth Enright was one of my favorite books, along with its sequel Return to Gone-Away (1961). A com­mu­ni­ty of sum­mer hous­es were built around a lake in the late 1800s. The lake dried up in 1905 and the hous­es were aban­doned. Present-day kids (well, in the ‘50s) dis­cov­er the “ship-wrecked” hous­es and two elder­ly peo­ple liv­ing there. These aren’t slam-bang, cliff-hang­er sto­ries, but a rich, lus­cious sum­mer idyll with just enough mys­tery and the most gor­geous writ­ing in children’s lit­er­a­ture.

Each day, rain or shine, is packed with won­der at Gone-Away Lake. Brim­ming with curios­i­ty, the kids dis­cov­er plants, ani­mals, insects that changed the land­scape after the lake van­ished. They lis­ten to sto­ries about the good old days when the com­mu­ni­ty was in full swing. They pick out a not-too-falling-down house and make it their own.

When I woke up our first morn­ing at Moun­tain Lake, the sun was bright. I left Rest­less and Nosy to the word-search puz­zles and went explor­ing. I wad­ed into the 55-acre site, mar­veling at the vari­ety of plants and tiny crit­ters that had adapt­ed with­in the last five years.  I paused by dry-docked rocks with strange for­ma­tions. Over­head, the sky was paint box blue and I felt con­tent. I didn’t need to iden­ti­fy that slug, or those pur­ple flow­ers, or the snake that whipped near­ly across my shoes. It was enough to let unex­pect­ed won­der wash over me.

Sud­den­ly I didn’t want to go home. I want­ed to explore every inch of that dried-up lake and wan­der the back roads that criss­crossed the moun­tain. I want­ed to give myself over to won­der.

In Gone-Away Lake, ten-year-old Por­tia weeds the gar­den with her Aunt Hil­da. 

If you could just hold onto it,” said Por­tia, sit­ting back on the warm grass. “Sum­mer start­ing to be.  Every­thing just exact­ly right.”

But if it were this way every day, all the time, we’d get too used to it,” said Aunt Hil­da. “It’s because it doesn’t and can’t last that a day like this is so won­der­ful.”

 “Good things must have com­par­ers, I sup­pose,” said Por­tia. “Or how would we know how good they are?”

Those few, per­fect days at Moun­tain Lake became my com­par­er. I didn’t find a vacant colony of Vic­to­ri­an hous­es, but I gath­ered odd peb­bles from the bot­tom of the lake bed, pos­si­bly cre­at­ed mil­lions of years ago. I took some pho­tos. I did not take notes. 

Back home, I fell into my busy rou­tine. Yet I made sure I checked the morn­ing sky when I fetched the paper, watched star­lings at stop­lights, lin­gered at the door to catch a rare south­east breeze. I quit look­ing up every sin­gle ques­tion that flashed through my mind. Some things should remain a mys­tery.

E.B. White quote

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Behind the Sign

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. I’ve nev­er been a ded­i­cat­ed diary keep­er, but car­ry­ing around a hand­made jour­nal felt less like “being a writer” and more like stay­ing in touch with the world.

Candice Ransom's Journals

Back then, I didn’t fre­quent Star­bucks or muse­ums or uni­ver­si­ty libraries. My obser­va­tions were made in din­ers where the first course for the spe­cial is cole slaw with Saltines, in gen­er­al stores that car­ry week­ly news­pa­pers report­ing a man was shot and became dead, and along back roads where peo­ple live in aban­doned gas sta­tions. I cap­tured scenes like this:

In Good­will today, a moth­er and daugh­ter came in talk­ing six­ty to the minute. Nat­u­ral­ly I eaves­dropped. Moth­er: Look, they got Dale Earn­hart glass­es. Daugh­ter: No, I seen ‘em before. I remem­bered shop­ping trips with my moth­er and sis­ter, how we’d “find” stuff for each oth­er.

The daugh­ter was ahead of me in the check-out line. One of her items, a NASCAR throw, wasn’t priced. Her mother—a large woman in an ill-fit­ting dress—squeezed past me to stand behind her daugh­ter. “Par­don me, sweet­ie,” she said. The clerk allowed the NASCAR throw was $14.99. Too much, the daugh­ter said and paid for her oth­er things.

Her moth­er set down two glass­es, the Dale Earn­hart ones. She pulled two dol­lars fold­ed into tiny squares from her wal­let. I won­dered if she pur­chased the Earn­hart glass­es for her daugh­ter, know­ing she want­ed them but didn’t have enough mon­ey. She thanked me again for let­ting her cut in front. The women talked all the way out the door. I won­dered where they were head­ed next. I longed to go with them.

I know fam­i­lies like that. They’re every­where, but most of us liv­ing our busy, for­ward-focused lives don’t notice the mar­gin-dwellers. I see them because I once exist­ed on the periph­ery. Deep inside, I still do. Peo­ple at the ragged edge will give you their time and any­thing else, even if they can’t spare it. When they speak, in what Anne Tyler calls “pure metaphor,” I come home.

Read­ing my jour­nals made me won­der where I’ve been late­ly and why my recent work feels so … safe. I was once on track to tell the sto­ries of kids who have fall­en through the cracks. Not in a poor-me-we-live-in-a-trail­er-and-Dad­dy-chews-Red-Man way, but with dig­ni­ty and even humor. After sev­er­al failed attempts, I quit because I knew the sto­ries I want­ed to write would hard­ly be a top pick in an editor’s inbox.

Oct. 3, 2014: Some days—weeks—it feels as if I haven’t writ­ten a word. Not my words. I’m remind­ed how much I want to say, how lit­tle time I have to do it.

So I stopped keep­ing a jour­nal. Stopped dri­ving down back roads to get lost on pur­pose. Worse, I faced for­ward and ignored the edges where the love­ly, impor­tant things are.

No Outlet signI found advice from Jack Gantos’s open­ing speech at the 2014 SCBWI Mid-win­ter con­fer­ence. The slide on the screen showed the cov­er of his New­bery award-win­ner, Dead End in Norvelt, with the title writ­ten on a road sign and a boy stand­ing behind it.

Feb. 22: “Always go behind the sign,” Gan­tos said. “It’s where the real sto­ries are.” I already do that.

When I fin­ished read­ing, I stacked the note­books, reluc­tant to put them back on the dusty shelf. If I did, I’d bury a trea­sure trove of sto­ries, sketch­es, places, names, scenes, and rare glimpses of my own true self. I moved them to the bed­room to dip into, hop­ing my dreams will urge me to record once more the soft cadence of for­got­ten voic­es.

I’m the only one stand­ing in the way. No one will beg me to tell the sto­ries I’ve already shot and declared dead with­out writ­ing a syl­la­ble, hear­ing an edi­tor say, No, I have seen this before. It’s up to me to find the edges, to unfold the tiny, tight squares of my con­fi­dence. To get lost on pur­pose and slip behind the sign. To see what I’m real­ly part of.

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Poetry from Stones

Beach

[pho­to cred­it: Can­dice Ran­som]

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. 

Candice Ransom

[pho­to cred­it: Can­dice Ran­som]

In Novem­ber, I taught writ­ing work­shops at a school in a large­ly rur­al coun­ty. I was shocked to dis­cov­er most stu­dents couldn’t name objects in their bed­rooms, much less the sur­round­ing coun­try­side. With­out spe­cif­ic details, writ­ing is life­less. More impor­tant, if chil­dren can’t call up words, can’t dis­tin­guish between things, they will remain locked in win­try indif­fer­ence. Some blame falls on us.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA recent edi­tion of the Oxford Junior Dic­tio­nary swapped nature words for mod­ern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dan­de­lion, nec­tar, and otter. In went blog, bul­let-point, attach­ment, cha­t­room, and voice­mail. Updat­ing dic­tio­nar­ies isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as rel­e­vant as data­base, but it’s cer­tain­ly more musi­cal.  If we treat lan­guage like paper tow­els, it’s no won­der many kids can’t name com­mon back­yard birds.

When I was nine, my step­fa­ther taught me the names of the trees in our woods, par­tic­u­lar­ly the oaks. I learned to iden­ti­fy red, white, black, pin, post, and chest­nut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Label­ing trees, birds, and wild­flow­ers didn’t give me a sense of own­er­ship. Instead, I felt con­nect­ed to the plan­et. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept qui­et.

That same year we fourth graders were issued Thorndyke-Barnhart’s Junior Dic­tio­nary. I fell on mine like a duck on a June bug, enchant­ed by new words. My par­lor trick was spelling antidis­es­tab­lish­men­tar­i­an­ism, the longest word in the dic­tio­nary. Kids can Google the longest word in the Eng­lish lan­guage, but the expe­ri­ence isn’t the same as brows­ing through a big book of words. 

Emer­son wrote, “… the poet is the Namer, or Lan­guage-mak­er … The poets made all the words, nam­ing things after their appear­ance, some­times after their essence, and giv­ing to every one its own name and not another’s.” I believe young chil­dren are poets, assign­ing names and mak­ing up words to mark new dis­cov­er­ies. After they become teth­ered to tech­nol­o­gy, they par­rot words from com­mer­cials, pro­grams, and video games. That fresh lan­guage is lost.

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo imag­ine my delight when I found a new book for chil­dren, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert Mac­Far­lane paired with artist Jack­ie Mor­ris to res­cue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dic­tio­nary. Words like newt and king­fish­er are show­cased as “spells,” rather than straight def­i­n­i­tions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the crea­ture sink deep, while Morris’s water­col­ors cre­ate their own mag­ic.

On their joint book tour through­out Eng­land, Mac­Far­lane and Mor­ris intro­duced chil­dren to words—and ani­mals. On her blog Mor­ris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the book­sellers stopped me. ‘Ask the chil­dren if they know what a wren is, first, Jack­ie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had nev­er seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so per­haps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take chil­dren by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illus­trate our win­ter land­scape. By giv­ing kids spe­cif­ic names, they can then spin a thread from them­selves to the plan­et.

Ammonite

Ammonite [pho­to cred­it: Can­dice Ran­som]

Lan­guage is fos­sil poet­ry,” Emer­son con­tin­ues in his essay, “as the lime­stone of the con­ti­nent con­sists of infi­nite mass­es of the shells of ani­mal­cules, so lan­guage is made up of images, which now, in their sec­ondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poet­ic ori­gin.”

Rock rasps, what are you?
I am Raven! Of the blue-black jack­et and the boxer’s swag­ger,
Stronger and old­er than peak and than boul­der, raps Raven in reply.

From The Lost Words

Let’s dig up lost words before they become buried beneath the rub­ble of STEM-wor­thy terms. Feel the shape of them, pol­ish their shells, let them shine.

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True Story

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. Some­thing about those words both­ered me. The crux of his speech was that as writ­ers for chil­dren, we are tasked to be hon­est and not with­hold the truth.

After the applause pat­tered away, the air in the ball­room seemed charged. Every­one was eager to march, unfurl­ing the ban­ner of truth for young read­ers! If we had been giv­en paper, we would have start­ed bril­liant, authen­tic nov­els on the spot.

The keynote’s mes­sage car­ried over into break-out ses­sions. Pan­elists admit­ted to crav­ing the truth when they were kids, things par­ents wouldn’t tell them. Par­tic­i­pants agreed. We should show kids the world as it real­ly is! The impli­ca­tion being that chil­dren lead­ing “nor­mal” lives should be aware of harsh­er real­i­ties and devel­op empa­thy. Kids liv­ing out­side the pale would find them­selves, maybe learn how to cope with their sit­u­a­tions.

I stopped tak­ing notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a bro­ken world. By age four, I’d expe­ri­enced scores of harsh­er real­i­ties. At sev­en, I learned the hard­est truth of all: that par­ents aren’t required to want or love their chil­dren. I spent most of my child­hood field­ing one real-world chal­lenge after the oth­er. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alco­holism, home­less­ness, and domes­tic vio­lence.

Christ­mas Day when I was 11 with my sis­ter and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

I read to escape, delv­ing into sto­ries where the character’s biggest chal­lenge was find­ing grandmother’s hid­den jew­els, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek nor­mal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane fam­i­lies weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Hen­ry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tum­bled from her space­ship, lived a nor­mal life with her fam­i­ly on Asra, climb­ing trees on that far­away plan­et like I did on Earth.

In a fam­i­ly of non-read­ers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read con­stant­ly, but decid­ed to be a writer at an ear­ly age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried trea­sure, not things I had to keep qui­et about; books where kids felt pro­tect­ed enough to embark on adven­tures.

My moth­er and step­fa­ther regard­ed me with odd respect, as if unsure what plan­et this kid had come from. So long as “sto­ry-writ­ing” didn’t inter­fere with school­work (it did), my moth­er excused me from chores. Only once did she declare read­ing mate­r­i­al inap­pro­pri­ate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Sto­ry mag­a­zine and was deep into sto­ry about an abused boy when my moth­er caught me. She thought I was learn­ing about sex. I was out­raged by the injus­tice: pun­ished for read­ing about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.

Judy ScuppernongThen I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fic­tion was light and humor­ous. Yet some brave writ­ers tack­led seri­ous sub­jects. My col­league Bren­da Seabrooke wrote a slen­der, ele­gant verse nov­el called Judy Scup­per­nong. This com­ing-of-age sto­ry touch­es on fam­i­ly secrets and alco­holism. The for­mat was per­fect for nav­i­gat­ing dif­fi­cult sub­jects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More fol­lowed, until I’d told my own sto­ry. My agent sub­mit­ted my book Nobody’s Child. One edi­tor asked me to rewrite it as a YA nov­el. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some peo­ple said that by telling my sto­ry, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I nev­er will.

The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I want­ed to know why. But by then every­one involved was gone, tak­ing their rea­sons with them. If I were to fic­tion­al­ize my sto­ry to help anoth­er child in the same sit­u­a­tion, I couldn’t make the end­ing turn out any bet­ter.

In the fan­tasies and mys­ter­ies and books about ani­mals I read as a kid, I fig­ured out I’d prob­a­bly be okay. When I looked up from what­ev­er library book I was read­ing, or what­ev­er sto­ry I was writ­ing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was bro­ken. There were woods and gar­dens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, peo­ple who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I nev­er expect­ed to hold the great mir­ror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a lit­tle pock­et mir­ror …one that reflects small blem­ish­es, and some great beau­ties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writ­ers will flash the great mir­ror of truth in bold­er works than mine. I’m con­tent to shine my lit­tle pock­et mir­ror at small truths, no big­ger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.

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The Sameness of Sheep

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). The age argu­ment took the wind out of my sails. I under­stood the reasoning—create old­er char­ac­ters to get the most bang for the mid­dle-grade buck by snar­ing younger read­ers. Bet­ter yet, stick the char­ac­ter in mid­dle school.

The true mid­dle-grade nov­el is for read­ers eight to twelve with some over­lap. Chap­ter books for sev­en- to ten-year-olds bisect the low­er end of mid­dle grade. “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to four­teen-year-olds, strad­dle the gap between MG and YA. If my char­ac­ters are twelve, I hit the mid­dle grade and tween tar­get and every­body wins. Maybe not.

At our pub­lic library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG nov­els off the shelves. Opened each book, checked the age of the main char­ac­ter. Twelve. Twelve. Eleven! No, wait, turn­ing twelve in the next chap­ter. While the char­ac­ters and sto­ries were all dif­fer­ent, there was a sheep­like same­ness read­ing about twelve-year-olds.

It wor­ries me. Pub­lish­ers con­tribute to push­ing ele­men­tary school chil­dren as quick­ly as pos­si­ble into mid­dle school. Where are the mid­dle-grade books about a ten-year-old char­ac­ter? An eight-year-old char­ac­ter? Ah, now we’ve backed into chap­ter book ter­ri­to­ry.

Charlotte's WebSup­pos­ed­ly, kids pre­fer to “read up” in age. This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade. (Lord help them.) Read­ing about a char­ac­ter who is two or three years old­er might gen­er­ate anx­i­ety in some read­ers. And they may dis­dain short­er, sim­pler chap­ter books.

In the past, before pub­lish­er and book­store clas­si­fi­ca­tions, age wasn’t much of an issue. Wilbur is the main char­ac­ter in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern sav­ing him. Fern is eight, a fact men­tioned on the first page. Does any­one care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s rich­ly-depict­ed barn­yard?

The Year of Billy MillerMore recent­ly, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” bar­ri­er with his ter­rif­ic mid­dle grade nov­el, The Year of Bil­ly Miller (2013). Fuse 8’s Bet­sy Bird com­pared it to Bev­er­ly Cleary’s Ramona books. Bil­ly is sev­en and start­ing sec­ond grade, a char­ac­ter nor­mal­ly found in a briskly-writ­ten, low­er-end chap­ter book. Yet Bil­ly Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages. Bird prais­es Henkes, “[He] could have … upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn’t. He made Bil­ly a sec­ond grad­er because that’s what Bil­ly is. His mind is that of a sec­ond grad­er … To false­ly age him would be to make a huge mis­take.”

Tru and NelleAuthor G. Neri took on a big­ger chal­lenge. In Tru & Nelle (2016), the char­ac­ters are sev­en and six. This hefty MG explores the child­hood friend­ship between Tru­man Capote and Harp­er Lee. Neri chose fic­tion rather than biog­ra­phy because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] sto­ry was born from real life.” He didn’t shy away from writ­ing a lengthy, lay­ered book about a first and sec­ond grad­er.

We need more books fea­tur­ing eight-, nine-, ten-year-old char­ac­ters that are true mid­dle grade nov­els and not chap­ter books. Chil­dren grow up too fast. Let them linger in the “mid­dle” stage, find them­selves in books with char­ac­ters their own age.

Let them enjoy the cycle of sea­sons, “the pas­sage of swal­lows, the near­ness of rats, the same­ness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barn­yard and into mid­dle school.

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The Book Box

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. (“Well, this is the way library books looked in the fifties.”)

I want­ed to tuck my beloved books in a box to keep them safe, like baby robins fall­en out of a nest. Real­ly, what is a book, but ideas, adven­tures, peo­ple, and places pro­tect­ed by card­board, shaped like a box? I car­ried this notion with me on a trip to Michael’s, where I found a stur­dy box with a jig­saw of lit­tle box­es stacked under the front flap. I knew just what I’d do with this prize: show­case my favorite books in an assem­blage. 

The Book Box

At FedEx Office, I col­or pho­to­copied the book cov­ers, reduced them sev­er­al sizes, then dashed through A.C. Moore’s minia­ture sec­tion to col­lect tiny endowed objects. Next, I hap­pi­ly sort­ed through my scrap­book and ephemera stash for just-right win­dow dress­ing. I glued on paper, adding the objects. Pic­tures and trin­kets were pret­ty, but not enough. The box need­ed words to set the stories—and their meaning—free.

Home for a BunnyI typed quotes and notes into strips fold­ed accor­dion-style. Mar­garet Wise Brown’s Home for a Bun­ny gen­tly remind­ed me that once I had lived “under a rock, under a stone.” Like the bun­ny, I had no home of my own until I was five. This was my first book, my first expe­ri­ence in iden­ti­fy­ing with a char­ac­ter.

The title of Trix­ie Belden and the Secret of the Man­sion con­tained “secret” and “man­sion,” words that made my heart thump. Trix­ie lived in the coun­try like me, and had to work in the gar­den, like I did. Trix­ie stum­bled into mys­ter­ies and I did, too, when I furi­ous­ly scrib­bled who­dun­nits in fourth grade. Just like that, I became a writer.

Diamond in the WindowThe Dia­mond in the Win­dow opens with a quote from Emer­son: “On him the light of star and moon / Shall fall with pur­er radi­ance down … / Him Nature giveth for defense / His for­mi­da­ble inno­cence; / The mount­ing up, the shells, the sea, / All spheres, all stones, his helpers be …” At eleven, I skipped those words, but I didn’t ignore the small lessons from Emer­son and Thore­au sprin­kled through­out this fan­ta­sy / adven­ture / fam­i­ly / mys­tery sto­ry. This book changed my life.

I had to be mar­ried on Valentine’s Day, after the “Bride of Snow” chap­ter (and I was one, too, in three feet of snow!). Our pow­der room has a Hen­ry Thore­au theme and we have a gaz­ing globe (“The crys­tal sphere of thought”) in our back yard, like the Hall fam­i­ly.

Gazing Globe

With some thought and imag­i­na­tion, a book box can be a tan­gi­ble book report. Sup­plies required: a cig­ar box, con­struc­tion paper, glue, and a favorite book. A box cov­ered in red con­struc­tion paper could rep­re­sent Wilbur’s barn. A lid could repli­cate the map of Hun­dred Acre Wood. Or Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

Mak­ing my book box helped me slow down and think about what my favorite books meant to me. How Dia­mond in the Win­dow led me to the works of Thore­au and Emer­son, inspired me to look up from the print­ed page and tru­ly see the great sphere of our world.  

I still fill my pock­ets with rocks, pick up shells at the beach, and stare at the stars. I won­der if the rocks were bro­ken off from ancient glac­i­ers, and what hap­pened to the sea crea­tures inside the shells. The shells and rocks stay in jars and box­es. The stars can­not be con­tained, thank­ful­ly.

Book Box Interior

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