Yes, I am back from ALA. I’m not sure what state I’m in, or where my toothbrush is, but I’m back on campus at Hollins. I left Thursday morning for home, where I did two loads of laundry, swept, did the dishes, made the bed, answered e-mail, and worked on the synopsis of a new book, and packed for DC. I left for DC around noon for my Pentagon City hotel. Then I hurled myself on the subway to meet my Time Spies editor, Nina Hess, and her marketing guru, Shelly Mazzanoble, at their hotel for a little visit. From there we went to the opening session of the exhibits.
No one seems to remember if ALA had ever had opened the exhibits the evening before. It was supposed to be for committee members who might not have a chance to see the exhibits. They filled the hall like locusts, picking up ARCS, tote bags, and other freebies along the way. There was free food–buffet stations at intervals along the main drag. I decided to wait a bit until the crowd died down. It never did, so I finally stood in line and stood in line and stood in line and by the time I reached the table, only wilted garnishes languished in the chafing dishes.
When I finally left, the exhibit hall looked like the state fair on its last night. I took a cab back to my hotel across the river, thinking the publishers would put out fresh tote bags and ARCS the next day. That night I decided I would not stay in the hotel two nights but would go home the next day, after my signing and spending more time in the exhibit hall. I lay on the extra bed and turned on the TV. "War of the Worlds" was on, starrring Tom Cruise. Because I don’t have TV, everyone but me has seen this movie. Tom Cruise is ridiculous, brows beetled, teeth bared. Dakota Fanning screamed so much I was glad when the tripod snatched her. It was not a movie to watch when you are trying to calm down, knowing you have a big day ahead. I kept turning it off, then turning it back on to see another few minutes, then turning it off again.
Sometime during the night I woke up. My book was developing in my mind like the lightning storms that signaled the strange activity in the movie. Zzzt! zzzt! went characters and snatches of dialog and scenes. And then, like the tripods rising from the earth where they had been long-buried, the book unfurled. Not completely, but a good chunk of it. I did not take notes. I figured this was too much Tom Cruise, too much excitement, and way too long a day.
My taxi dropped me off at the convention center by 8:00 a.m. the next day. I breezed down to the exhibits to see what new goodies the publishers had put out. The hall was clean and neat . . . but tripods must have zapped the ARCs and tote bags. Not much was replenished.
Sterling was all ready for me, the first booth signing of the day. I did take pictures because they had done my table up so nicely. The camera I took to ALA is at home. So . . . picture if you will the table heaped with copies of Scrapbooking Just for You, all opened to the title page. On the other side were neat square stacks of Hello, Virginia! (world’s cutest board book). The sales people at Sterling work very hard. It can’t be an easy job, standing all day long, holding copies of my books, directing traffic my way. They made me feel very special. Thanks to everyone at Sterling!
Tracey and Josh Adams picked me up from my signing. We talked about iMACs and iPhones and they shared pictures of their two little girls. It was relaxing and enjoyable. I chatted with editors I hadn’t seen in a long time: Judy O’Malley of Charlesbridge, Jean Feiwel of Feiwel and Friends, Kathy Landwehr of Peachtree, and others. I linked up with an old friend and we talked and talked. I meant to stay for Amie Rose’s demo at Wizards of the Coast. I meant to stop by Kate’s signing at Walker. I even wanted to see the cupcake guy that Jama raved about. But by 3:00 I was dead on my feet and I had to pick up my car in Pentagon City by 4:00 and then drive home again. Sorry, guys!
My overall take on the show? I thought it was quiet compared to past shows. I miss publisher’s catalogs, but I know they save a lot of money and trees. Still, I’m delighted to report publishers are working as hard as ever to produce books for kids–real books, despite the buzz on e-books and other electronic media. I’m glad I went. I wish I could have posted my photos.
And I wish I could find my toothbrush.
When I was a kid, I had a list of things I wanted to do every summer vacation. Since I lived in the sticks, I rarely got to do any of those things, like travel to someplace new or solve a mystery. But it was fun to plan and dream, even if I knew I’d spend hot summer days listening to "jar flies" (my grandfather’s term for locusts) and reading and drawing and writing stories (the only way I got to someplace new or solved a mystery).
I revived my Summer List this summer. Here it is: I would like to go someplace new, paint my nails blue or green (colored nailpolish was popular in the late 60s, I painted my nails a different color every day–blue, green, orange–back then I had long beautiful nails and could devote an hour or two every night working on them–two hours on nails!), and, last, I’d like to re-read mystery favorites like Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden.
I’ve already been to someplace new, Tangier Island. Sunday I painted my fingernails blue to match my toenails. And yesterday I checked out some original Nancy Drews, not the watered-down "yellow back" Nancy Drews I read back in the early 60s, and was immediately immersed in the "torrid weather" of The Bungalow Mystery.
Two more antique mall finds (I went to Roanoke Antique Mall the instant my apartment was set up–well, I have my priorities!). I may put the vintage Jack and Jill booster seat in my kitchen and set the toaster on it. The other bargain was a Giant Golden Book dictionary. At home I keep my Giant Golden Book collection in the phonebook slot of a vintage telephone stand that fits snugly between the tub and toilet in one of our bathrooms (extra roll of tp where the phone is supposed to be).
Later I’ll show views of my Hollins bedroom/office. Meanwhile, I need to run some errands in this "torrid weather" and then get to work. Hope it’s cooler where you are!
Well, almost. I leave for Hollins University tomorrow for six weeks. Although I have furnished apartment, I need to take with me, among other things: hangers, canned goods, dishes, silverware, my own pillows, a vintage milk bottle carrier filled with vintage soft drink bottles that I put flowers in, toiletries, medicine, a turquoise enamel basin with house plants, my class notes and books, my work notes for two novels-in-progress and research books, my reading books, a vintage suitcase to put reading books in so they look inviting, shoes, underwear, work-out clothes, a two-burner stove because the communal kitchen has everything but a stove, a huge scrapbooking tote brimming with supplies, photographs, cereal, and at least two vintage purses.
I’ve known about this trip since last summer. You’d think I’d be ready by now. Yesterday I went to my sister’s in Richmond and she cut and colored my hair, so that’s done. But I haven’t yet packed my clothes or my electronics and, most important of all, I still have to get a pedicure. I keep fiddling with the two books that are jabbering in my head–one in each ear–and can’t leave my office.
I have four students this summer. We will be a nice, tight group in our picture book tutorial. I believe we will all do fine work and am looking forward to watching my students make progress from Week One to Week Six. They don’t know this, but I learn more from them than they do from me. There’s something about talking about the process, analyzing the process, working through the process that helps me understand better what I’m working on, even if it’s not a picture book. And then there’s the comraderie that comes from all of us diligently trying to bring new projects into the world. Sometimes we sit on the long gallery in the Hollins green rocking chairs and just talk. I wish you could come and sit with us, too.
So I will say goodbye for now (must pack!), but I’ll be back. I’ll be attending ALA the first week of school (yes, I will drive to Roanoke tomorrow with my car and my husband’s pickup loaded, unpack, teach two classes, come home next Thursday, drive to DC on Friday, stay in DC until Sunday, drive home and then another 4 hours over the mountains to Hollins). I know ALA will be exciting and I’ll give a full report.
As soon as my Cybershot camera battery has charged, and my new cellphone has charged, and my new Samsung camera accessories have been sorted out, and my Garmin’s person’s voice has been changed to "Samantha" from "Jack" (who says things like "Fairfax Sounty Parkwy" for "Fairfax County Parkway" and in general gets on my nerves), and I transfer the last of my work to the memory stick . . . then, I think, I will be ready.
And no, Winchester. You cannot come with me.
Although I grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, my entire family was in the town of Manassas, just across the Bull Run River, at one time. Right after WWII, my grandfather built a brick bungalow for him and my grandmother. My uncle Bobby, husband of my aunt Irene, built a bungalow next door. My mother’s sister Lil built her house next to Bobby. My mother and father built a stone bungalow across the street. My other two aunts built houses down the street. The Dellingers were thick as fleas on a junkyard dog. I was one of 15 cousins. My mother remarried when I was 5 and we moved to Fairfax. But we went back to Manassas like homing pigeons. Family was there. Most of the time, we congregated at my aunt Irene’s house. In her generous kitchen, she kept a drawer full of gum and every kind of sugar cereal on the open shelving. We kids could grab a stick of gum or have a bowl of cereal whenever we wanted.
Three of my cousins lived in that particular brick bungalow. Two girls–one a year younger, one two years older–and a boy my age. I thought they were so lucky. They lived in town with ready access to sidewalks (my gold standard for real estate). They could walk to Woolworth’s or Rohr’s Five and Ten or Pitt’s Theater. They could ride their bikes down Quarry Street, past the stately Victorians. They had their own rec room in the basement, tiled in green and white linoleum. The rec room had a ping-pong table, a green vinyl sofa (cushions split from jumping on), and an old cabinet TV with a nine-inch screen that showed so much snow we couldn’t tell if we were watching "The Little Rascals" or "Soupy Sales."
On weekends and in summer, I would spend the night with these cousins. On a dare from my boy cousin, I tried to slide my skinny self down the laundry chute. We’d eat lunch on the screened in porch: tuna fish on Wonder Bread washed down with cherry Cheer-Aid, telling jokes and slapping each other, then we’d stampede back outside to run in the hose or read Classic comics under the willow tree. Uncle Bobby came home from work and we’d eat supper on the porch–fried chicken (good, but not as good as my mother’s), corn pudding (my favorite!), biscuits, sliced tomatoes from the garden and buckets of iced tea. I can still hear the tinktinktink of teaspoons around the table.
After supper, we’d range outdoors again to play Red Light, Green Light (they had to explain the rules to me every time). Once Uncle Bobby took us for a spin in his Model A. I sat in the rumble seat and waved to everyone like the Queen Mother. Back home, we caught fireflies and swapped lies till my aunt called us inside. We lurched in, dirty and exhausted, for baths. Then would come the hard time for me. I was prone to homesickness. Daytime was fine, but at night I wanted my own room, my own bed, all my stuffed animals. Upstairs in the girls’ bedroom, we three girls lay across one of the twin beds and gazed out into the thick, cricket-y darkness and whispered our deepest secrets. My cousins dropped off but I lay miserably awake, wishing for morning. The train whistle blew. I thought it was the loneliest sound in the world.
We all grew up and away, but Aunt Irene called us back for family reunions. Uncle Bobby built a summerhouse in the back yard where we once nabbed fireflies in the grapevines. Irene always left the picnic briefly to go pick up her entries and ribbons at the fairgrounds. My cousins talked about their babies. I checked Irene’s jack o’lanterns, a perenniel with lantern-shaped flowers. In August, when we had our reunions, the jack o’lanterns were turning orange. Inside the lantern was a hard orange fruit, like a real tiny jack o’lantern. The plants signaled the end of the summer. It would be another year or more before we saw each other again.
My cousin’s babies are now out of college, some with children of their own. First my mother, then my mother’s sisters, and then Uncle Bobby died. His son, the cousin my age, died this January. And Aunt Irene–that baker of corn pudding and biscuits so light they had to be tethered, that maker of of Cheer-Aid and sweet tea, that winner of blue ribbons for sewing, that lover of redbirds and Conway Twitty–she has dementia. My cousin is taking her mother to live with her and the house Irene lived in for 60 years will be sold.
So last Wednesday my sister and I went to Manassas to help pack. I wrapped Irene’s redbird figurine collection, hundreds of salt and pepper shakers. I poked my hand down the laundry chute, amazed I was once gullible enough to think I could slide down it, even as a scrawny nine-year-old. I said goodbye to Irene’s beautiful antique woodstove in the summerhouse. I found Bobby’s WWII navy uniform in a chest in the attic over the garage. I found a box of grimy textbooks belonging to Bobby and my mother’s younger sisters. I checked each flyleaf, eager to find one belonging to my mother. But she has been gone 22 years–except for the things my sister, my nieces, and I have, earthly traces of her have been erased.
Auctioneers and realtors came and went as we packed a lifetime of photographs and framed certifcates. We ate Red, Hot, and Blue barbeque around the table in the den, our very last family reunion. And that night, I slept in one of the twin beds in the girls’ room. The train whistle sang me to sleep. It was the most beautiful sound in the world.
From our cottage on the water in Reedville, we watched the Tangier Island ferry coming back from its daily round-trip. The ferry is an excursion boat that travels from the mainland to the island 20 miles in the Chesapeake Bay. The Gables was part of the boat’s tour. We could hear the captain telling the passengers about the eccentric Captain Fisher and his house. "Some day," we said. "Some day we’ll go to Tangier Island." It was on my list of Virginia places to see.
The next morning at breakfast, I fell into conversation with a British couple who were taking the ferry to Tangier. It left at 10:00. At 9:15, I told my husband I wanted to go, too. That very day. I didn’t want to wait for "someday." He didn’t want to go. I mean REALLY didn’t want to go. But he will do anything for me, unless it’s life-threatening. In truth, I didn’t want to take the ferry. I don’t like open expanses of water and got queasy in a kayak once. But it was the only way to get to Tangier. I took the world’s fastest shower, packed, and we drove to Buzzard’s Point marina where the ferry was docked.
As it was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the boat was pretty full. There were no seats left at the top, which was a blessing in disguise. After the boat cruised through Cockrell’s Creek and the Wicomico River, we speeded into the Chesapeake with its choppy waves and a stiff wind. The people on top were buffeted for more than an hour and a half. Yes, it’s a long way to the island, long enough for me to feel I was re-enacting the "I Love Lucy" show where she and Fred Mertz take the Staten Island ferry and both get seasick.
What’s the deal about Tangier Island? Well, it’s old, for one thing. In fact, our little celebratory trip took us along part of Captain John Smith’s 1608 expedition (after settling Jamestown in 1607, Smith was quite eager to explore and map the Chesapeake region). We’d eaten lunch in Tappahannock, "visited" by Smith in 1608, and our own Rappahannock River back in Fredericksburg had been visited by him. Tangier Island was one of Smith’s stops. People settled there in 1683. And they are still there, living in a community so isolated they speak with a broad Elizabethan accent.
We had two and a half hours on Tangier. The island is only 5 miles long and most of that is marshland. We took a golf-cart tour that lasted less than 10 minutes and covered all the important sites such as the post office, the medical center (the doctor flies in once a week), the two churches, the one policeman, the two cemeteries–one very old, one new and both crowded–the K-12 school where each grade had about 5 students.
I noticed lots of island cats but spotted only one small dog. It occurred to me that an island with a main industry of soft-shell crabs would attract a bustling cat population. It also occurred to me there were no vets. Sick pets had to be taken to either the Maryland or Virginia mainland on one of the three April through October ferries. I asked our guide what the winters were like. "Freezing!" she said. With no mountains or forests to buffer storms, I imagine the place was miserable in the winter.
No cars are allowed on the island (though we saw two old pick-up trucks). People got around by golf cart, motor scooter, bicycle, and shank’s mare. I loved this turquoise beauty with hand-painted flourishes and fancy-stitched seat. I pictured myself tooling around the narrow lanes, the basket filled with–well, not library books because there was no library. Probably groceries. The one grocery store (like an old-time general store) received its shipment once a week. If you didn’t get your gallon of milk and Little Debbie oatmeal pies, you were out of luck until the next week. That would have driven me nuts (every morning I line up my goodie supply for the day and if the afternoon is a little thin, I make a run to the Giant), but it didn’t bother the islanders.
Tourism is a large part of their income. They have from April to October to sell tee-shirts, fish and chips, ice cream, and, in the case of three little girls and one yellow cat, a pitcher of lemonade and five slightly-squashed cupcakes. The town was so small that the day-trippers spilled off our ferry like marbles from a jar and wandered through the alleys. From our table in a restaurant (where we scoffed down fish and chips and "Overboard Brownies"), we saw the tourists walk past the windows. I wondered how the islanders felt about boatloads of people peering into their tiny gardens and making the same remarks about their hard-to-understand accents and how they managed to stay sane.
If you ask me, people should be asking us how we stay sane. Yes, they have cellphone service and satellite TV and even high-speed Internet. But everyone on the island was outside on that beautiful day. Grown-ups and children rode their bikes up and down the same lanes they rode every day. Shirtless barefoot boys pushed homemade boats into the marshland creeks. Girls sat on corners and talked (okay, some things don’t change no matter where you are). I saw no overweight children (and few overweight adults, for that matter).
I was struck by the strong sense of community. Children made their own fun, outdoors. Golf-cart tour guides yelled at people they knew (everyone) and stopped the tour to tell their kids to wait until the end of the tour before they could get a dollar for an ice cream. It was a town with no secrets. If you thought of doing something bad, everyone knew it before you did it.
I admired their grit for sticking it out there. Over the years, the population has dwindled due to attrition and also a reclamation of the marshlands. You can buy a house on Tangiers for $80,000 (fixer-upper) to $150,000 (ready to move in). They welcome newcomers. I sensed they are a hardy, cheerful bunch, doing the best they can with a capricious soft-shell crab industry, dangerous high tides, and winters that scoured the island. Then I realized Tangier Islanders aren’t "sticking it out." They are thriving, as they have always done. Their lives follow the natural course of the sun and the tides and the seasons. We have much to learn from them.
The boat ride back was long. Everyone had eaten fresh fish and ice cream and walked around in the sun for a few hours. They were less chatty than on the ride over. A family sat behind us. Their children–a boy around 7 and a girl about 5–hopped up and down in the seat. Their mother enouraged them to take a nap. The little girl curled up beside her mother and fell asleep like a kitten. The boy, being a boy, held out longer. Finally he too stretched out, one bony knee against the back of the seat, and was gone in seconds. I looked at him, his cheeks pink from wind and sun, his light-brown cowlick, his young relaxed features. I wondered if he dreamed about being one of the free island boys, running around shirtless and barefoot, pushing his own boat into the creek.
Soon everyone on the boat, young and old, had fallen asleep, like they were in Sleeping Beauty’s castle. I lay across my seat to keep the queasiness at bay and thought this was the best book celebraton I’d ever had.