Skinny Dip with Virginia Euwer Wolff

book coverWhat’s your favorite holiday tradition?

I have so many favorites. One of them is the hanging of the Christmas stockings. My aunt made felt and appliqué stockings for my two tiny children in the 1960s. Thirty years later, my daughter made felt and appliqué stockings for her husband, their two children, and me. She designed the appliqué motifs to reflect each family member. For instance, my son-in-law's has an abstract painting in felt pieces; mine has a violin, complete with fragile strings made of thread. We hang these old and new stockings on Christmas Eve. The youngest family members go to bed. The older generation sneak to the mantel, one by one, and put Santa's gifts into the stockings. Santa gives small surprises that will fit in the stocking, souvenir postcards, cartoons, lactose pills, always a candy cane, always a lump of coal. First thing on Christmas morning we open our stockings, one by one with everyone watching. Many laughs, many memories of previous Christmas mornings, and Christmas spirit in abundance.

Were you a teacher’s pet or teacher’s challenge?

gr_campfireAs a small child whose father had died when I was five, living in a rural community where everyone knew my family, I was at first handled carefully and tenderly by teachers. As a painfully shy person and the last child in my first grade class to learn to read, I must have needed some extra coddling. And it turned out that I was a good reader (at long last) and a very good speller. Those went a long way up the rungs to teacher's pet. That and pity for our widowed and orphaned family in wartime, as well as the public fact that our mother was now running the orchard business and playing the organ for church and serving in the PTA and supervising our Camp Fire Girls' group and seeing that we had music lessons and Sunday School. (And we didn't have electricity yet.) Soon, though, That Thing happened to me. That mystifying Thing that some middle school girls are susceptible to. I became a problem. Loud, irritating, gossiping and whispering, nearly blind to the beauties of science and math. And it turned out that I was actually having to study in order to succeed academically. Oh, cruel world, to have thrust such burdens upon me. These extremes, teacher's pet and teacher's irritant, have stood me in good stead as a watcher, listener, teacher, and story maker.

What’s the first book report you ever wrote?

We did some some oral ones in early grades, but I can't remember a written one till a ghastly horrible inadequate one I wrote in seventh grade (Jane Eyre), or maybe it was the ghastly horrible inadequate one I wrote in eighth grade (A Tale of Two Cities). Both still make me ashamed, which may be why I can't remember which was which, trying to dilute the guilt by draping a cloud over the memory.

Do you like to gift wrap presents?

I LOVE gift-wrapping presents. Like ironing, it's a craft that can satisfy in minutes. Unlike writing a book or learning a sonata, which can take years (and the gratification with these latter two is never complete), gift-wrapping is its own reward. I iron papers and ribbons from previous gifts, and in our family we often wrap in maps from National Geographic.

What do you wish you could tell your 10-year old self?

"Get a grip. Read more broadly, more deeply. Practice the violin much, much, much more methodically. Leave less and less to chance. In a couple of years you're going to find that math is getting harder and you're going to have to have more tenacity than you've even dreamed of. Learn at least a couple of new words each week. Yes, you will get breasts. Yes, you will eventually get your period. No, your father is not going to come back to life. Be considerably more grateful to your mother, who's working harder than any other five mothers you know. On the other hand, you're beginning to do some things OK: You've already learned at your mother's knee that all people are created equal, but you will have to keep re-learning how to deploy that truth. You've got some basic optimism; hang on to it. And another thing: Eventually, you'll learn the word 'halcyon'. And then you'll know the name for these summer days on the lawn, reading about Betsy and Tacy and Nancy Drew, and playing with the cat and dog, and looking up at flying squirrels darting among the towering Douglas firs at the edge of the world."

What 3 children’s book authors or illustrators or editors would you like to invite to dinner?

Terry Pratchett, Ashley Bryan, A.A. Milne.

Where’s your favorite place to read?

Anywhere. The light has to be good, though. Indoors, outdoors, upstairs, downstairs, in libraries, on trains, on porches, in the woods, on beaches, on airplanes, in bedrooms, in airports. At breakfast, at sunset, in the middle of the night. With classical music in the background or silence. And I love being read to, so in my car I always have a book going.


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David LaRochelle
8 years ago

What great insight into an author whose work I’ve admired for a long time. Thanks for shar­ing the his­to­ry of your grow­ing up years, Virginia.