by Lynne Jonell
I had been told about her history some years before; but when I met the woman, we didn’t mention it. We talked instead about books, a subject of common interest, and teaching, her passion.
I made an effort to forget what I knew about her past; it was awful enough for her to have lived through it without my thinking about it while we talked, like a bystander at a crime scene who keeps casting surreptitious glances at the pooling blood beneath a blanket-covered mound.
But I couldn’t keep my thoughts entirely disciplined. Mostly, I was in awe — that she had survived, that she had become a kind person, a contributing member of society with a generous heart. And now, days later, I am still thinking about — let’s call her “Jean.”
I know there are evil things done in this world, but for the most part they are things that one reads about in papers, or hears on the news. To sit across from someone who lived through what Jean had was something more real, and in the days following our lunch date I went back to it over and over again, trying each time to make sense of her story somehow.
I suppose it will end up being worked out in a book. It’s happened before. There are people in my life I have tried to comprehend, and events and themes that have concerned me deeply. I have worried them all like a dog might a bone until they took shape as characters and plot points, and then I wrote them down.
In my book Emmy & the Incredible Shrinking Rat, where did Miss Barmy, the world’s most evil nanny, come from? I know, but I’m not telling. Why does the man in her life keep going back to her in spite of everything? That is something that mystifies me as well and I try to make sense of it on the page.
In my newest book, The Sign of the Cat, the Earl of Merrick is the hero of the nation, universally admired and honored — but this front hides a dangerous criminal (and he’s mean to kittens, too.) Where did this villain come from? I didn’t know while I was writing the story, but I am beginning to understand now.
Why is it so important to write about villains? Why not just write about good people, and good choices?
Because evil does exist in this world, and children know it. They may not know it in all its horror, but they get the concept; and they’re afraid of the dark. And they passionately want justice.
I want justice, too. And I want to tell the truth. So I write fantasy.
Fantasy is a time-honored method of speaking truth when truth is too difficult to face straight on. I can write about child abandonment, abduction, and murder, and if I include talking cats, it’s considered perfectly suitable for children. Fantasy softens the sharp edges, distances the reality, so that it becomes possible to look at deep truths and deep fears without being overwhelmed.
Fantasy has another purpose, too. It can carry readers far, far away from the circumstances of their lives. It can take a lonely and abused child, like Jean, to another world entirely; a world where such a child has a chance, and a voice; a world where evil is unequivocal and called by its name.
Being told from birth that you are less than everyone else takes its toll. Being told you are worthless can make you feel as if you are drowning in a sea of rejection and pain. But for a few hours in time, as long as it takes to read a book, such a child can forget; such a child can identify with a character, can put on courage, can hope for a happy ending.
Jean loved books as a child. I like to think that the books she read helped her make it through. And there are many children like Jean, right now, today, caught in situations they feel powerless to change. I want to give them what I can: a world where justice comes at last, be the battle ever so unequal.
Illustrations by Lynne Jonell, from The Sign of the Cat