Borrowed Magic”

Thir­teen years.  The project I began in 2003 has had that many birth­days.  It occu­pies two large crates in my office.  It has dom­i­nat­ed my life, involv­ing trav­el, research, read­ing.  It has spawned four ver­sions, each drag­ging mul­ti­ple drafts.  Rejec­tions span ten years.

Nobody, it seems, wants this book.  “Kids won’t be inter­est­ed.”  The sub­ject, Mar­garet Wise Brown, would find this fun­ny.  I am not amused, espe­cial­ly since it was Mar­garet her­self who demand­ed (she’s not the ask­ing type) that I tell her story.

Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the MoonThe jour­ney began in 1992 when I read Leonard Mar­cus’ biog­ra­phy, Mar­garet Wise Brown: Awak­ened by the Moon.  I re-read that book every night for eight years.  Clear­ly some­thing was awak­en­ing in me: a fas­ci­na­tion with Margaret’s sto­ry and the desire to write for the very young.  In 2003, I gave in to Margaret’s insis­tence and start­ed researching.

Tan­gled up in Margaret’s sto­ry is my own, both writ­ers for chil­dren, though our back­grounds are vast­ly dif­fer­ent.  No mat­ter what genre I work in — pic­ture books, mid­dle grade, non­fic­tion — I always draw upon my own life.  But because my youngest years were trau­mat­ic, I nev­er could reach my three-year-old self.  Writ­ing for the very young elud­ed me.  Mar­garet made it look so easy.  She wrote Good­night Moon in bed one morn­ing and lit­er­al­ly phoned it in to her editor.

little island 1 webEar­li­er this year, I was asked to speak and give a work­shop on Vinal­haven Island, Maine, where Mar­garet had owned a sum­mer house, in August.  I accept­ed, but decid­ed my Mar­garet book would stay in the crates.  I would not res­ur­rect a failed project.

Days before my flight, Mar­garet beck­oned once more.  A whole week on Vinal­haven!  A rare chance to see Only House!  How could I pass up that oppor­tu­ni­ty?  I dug out the crates and pored over my notes and drafts, let­ting Mar­garet fill my soul again.

On the fer­ry to the Island, I prayed for a new way into my sto­ry.  Would I be able to bor­row some of Margaret’s mag­ic from her spe­cial place?

I vis­it­ed Only House.  I sat on Margaret’s dock.  I gazed at the lit­tle pine-topped island she made famous in The Lit­tle Island and wait­ed for light­ning to strike.

mwb house 1 webAt Only House, Mar­garet lived a “cat life,” just being.  I only had a week, not enough time to “be.”  But I fell in love with Vinal­haven, just as she had.  Wak­ing to the country’s first sun­ris­es.  Ospreys glid­ing over the rental house I stayed in.  But­ter­flies work­ing tan­sy and this­tle.  Lob­ster boats dot­ting the bay.  Once, the call of a late-night loon.

Dur­ing Margaret’s first sum­mer there, she wrote to a friend, “Life goes on in Tran­si­tion.  This sum­mer it is bet­ter than it has been in a long time, and still [things hang] in the balance.”

One night, I watched a full moon climb over the cove.  I turned off the bed­room lamp and noticed glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceil­ing.  My effort to tell Margaret’s sto­ry one more time was fal­ter­ing.  She had been inspired by the real moon.  I only had past­ed-on stars that shined from bor­rowed light as my guide.

mwb gravestoneThe next day, I stood at Margaret’s grave site up the hill from Only House.  She had died sud­den­ly at the age of 42 and her fiancé had scat­tered her ash­es at the place she loved best. The gran­ite mark­er is inscribed with a quote from The Lit­tle Island.

Life is always in tran­si­tion. Any moment bal­ance can be tipped. Mar­garet may have found mag­ic here, but she still did the work in the short time allot­ted to her.

And so will I.

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7 years ago

Can­dice your curios­i­ty and pas­sion nev­er ceas­es to amaze me. I also have on my book­shelf MWB’s Awak­ened By The Moon and have loved it. I hope to vis­it Only House one day. You will find the way in, you already have the mag­ic. Bring her back. I’ll be waiting!

Liza Ketchum
7 years ago

Hel­lo, Can­dace! I’m glad you haven’t giv­en up on this sto­ry. You will find the way in. I’m about to pub­lish a nov­el I start­ed more than 20 years ago. Once cer­tain sto­ries get a hook into us, they won’t let go. That part of Maine is mag­i­cal and so is MWB– I’m eager to read your book!