I’m leaving this morning for Roanoke. Even though I’m taking this summer off from teaching, I can’t not go to Hollins! It just wouldn’t be summer!
Tonight I’m delivering a lecture on Margaret Wise Brown, “My Journey with Margaret Wise Brown,” as the final event in Hollins’ year-long celebration of one of their most famous literary alums. (Yes, there’s Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle and Natasha Trethaway and Annie Dillard but do little kids read their books every single night?) My dress for this occasion (bought from Goodwill) is in a color I call Margaret Wise Brown blue.
Saturday the joint jumps with my real book launch party! Real live guests, real food, real fun, and no stand-in cats. I’ll be channeling Mad Men in a different Goodwill dress and 60s jewelry. But mostly I’ll be having a blast with my former students, new students, faculty, friends, and loved ones. My agent, Tracey Adams, will be there with Josh, her husband, and her two girls. The youngest calls Iva Honeysuckle, “I Have a Honeysuckle.” I love it!
Monday I’ll be speaking again, this time on longevity in writing careers. The title of my talk is, “Failure: Keep Calm and Carry On.” I’m very excited about this talk because no one ever discusses what happens when your career goes in the toilet. And yes, I’ll be wearing another Goodwill goodie.
I’ll post lots of pictures when I get back next week! Meanwhile, y’all keep cool, drink lots of Kool-Aid and Slurpees, and take it easy.
It began with an image of a girl wearing seven pairs of underpants, walking down a back road in the summer heat. She meets up with a road gang convict who correctly guesses she’s running away and bets she’ll be caught before the day is done. The image is actually a memory—that was me wearing all those underpants, only I wasn’t running away from home, but to New York City to be a writer.
The first scene in the first chapter uses details I couldn’t make up: the leeches that latched on my feet when I cooled them in the Bull Run River, the blisters from wearing tennis shoes with no socks, the unrelenting mid-July sun. But there was a bigger story to tell than my failed attempt to hitchhike to New York City at age 13.
From that initial image grew a character much sassier and braver than I ever thought of being. Rebel McKenzie wants to be a paleontologist (“The Ice Age kind, not the dinosaur kind”) and when her plan to go to the Kids’ Ice Age Dig fails, she doesn’t just nurse the blisters on her heels (“Forget closed-back shoes,” her mother says). Rebel refuses to give up, not even when her mother ships her off to her older sister’s house to babysit her seven-year-old nephew, a strange child who has lunch with God and picks out funeral outfits for people before they are dead.
The plot is pure fiction, but the details are authentic: blueberry Slurpees, my sister’s first summer of beauty school, the baking heat, midnight trips to the fire station down the street for vending machine treats, the wig-falling-off incident, hotdog spaghetti, and my sister’s cats. Doublewide, the overweight Siamese famous for tee-teeing in the toilet, is a combination of her memorable cats, particularly Mish.
The story wouldn’t be contained in a straight narrative. Beauty queen Bambi had to have her say in her beauty tip newsletters, Rebel kept a field journal, and Rudy drew comics. This was a new way of working for me, but these extra bits kept the plot moving without relying on flashbacks and text-heavy passages.
I had the best time ever writing this book and was truly sorry when it was over. Rebel McKenzie is the book of my heart. It’s Rebel’s story, and mine.
To this day, neither of us can wear closed-back shoes.
Originally published in Children’s Literature Network magazine, under “Just Launched.”
Today’s the day!
Rebel McKenzie is out in the world! C’mon on in–the Frog Level Fire Department is jumping! Rebel is there already, and her seven-year-old nephew Rudy (the one who has lunch with God, but this is not mentioned in polite company.)
Rebel: Look at all the people that came to my party! Everybody in Grandview Estates trailer park is here.
Rudy: Wow! Rebel, you must be famous.
Rebel: I am. Darned famous. Now, promise me you won’t pick out funeral outfits for any of them–they aren’t dead yet. And keep an eye on your cat. He has a way of snicking food at parties.
Rudy: Where is Doublewide?
Rebel: Doublewide the Wonder Cat is on tour. This substitute cat is standing in for him.
Rudy: But that other cat isn’t a Simeze. And he’s not fat enough. Doublewide weighs twenty-two pounds. More than any cat in the world!
Rebel: The substitute cat looks a little worried, doesn’t he? Well, if he eats enough at the party, he’ll gain weight. Here comes that prissy Bambi Lovering. She better not have one of those dumb old beauty newsletters.
Bambi: Rebel, read this quick, you need it desperately. Is that Lacey Jane over there primping? Won’t do her much good.
Rebel: You never will get over the fact we beat the tiara off your hiney at the pageant.
Rudy: Shhhh! You’ll give away the ending of our book!
Rebel: It’s my book–that’s my name on the cover. I just let you be in it. Anyway, nobody would ever guess the ending of my book. It’s so weird, I can’t believe it myself!
Bambi: Do I see Neccos? I love Neccos! But not the black ones or the white ones. Rudy, you eat those, okay? [Screams] There’s a filthy, disgusting lizard by the refreshment table!
Rebel: Can’t you tell a box turtle from a lizard? Job the Marriage Turtle had a special invitation to come to my party.
Rudy: But that turtle doesn’t look like Job. He doesn’t have intials on his back.
Rebel: He’s a substitute turtle. The real Job is on tour with Doublewide the Wonder Cat. The animals in my book are more famous than me! I can’t believe Bambi doesn’t know a lizard from a turtle. She’d make a terrible scientist. When I get to be a paleontologist–the Ice Age kind, not the dinosaur kind–I’m gonna write my own book about animals, dead and alive.
Rudy: I’m hungry. Is there any white food here? I only eat white food, you know.
Rebel: Hey! Somebody fixed my invention, the Cracker Volcano. I bet everybody’s going to be serving that at parties now. It’ll be all the go.
Rudy: The substitute cat is eating your Cracker Volcano.
Rebel: He must really be serious about gaining weight. I see something better! Hotdog Spaghetti! My sister’s invention and is it good.
Lynette’s Famous Hotdog Spaghetti
7 oz. box of spaghetti, small bottle of catsup, 2 tablespoons of sugar, 8 hotdogs, 1 can Green Giant peas (optional but must be Green Giant)
Boil the spaghetti till it’s done. Slice hotdogs and fry in a skillet. Add cooked spaghetti. Pour catsup in, stir sugar in. Add peas if you want. Call the hogs to the trough!
Rebel: Dish you up some delicioso Hotdog Spaghetti and then go buy one of my books. I’ll even autograph it for you. The real Rebel McKenzie, not a substitute.
Hey! This is Rebel McKenzie. Tomorrow is the Big Day! Come to my party! It’ll be a blast! Where? The Frog Level Volunteer Fire Department, where else?
I promise I won’t be serving (I’ve been known to trip accidentally-on-purpose). We won’t be having the Ritz Cracker Volcano, either (my very own invention). Or we might. You never know so you’d better show up!
Get your Slurpees ready! On June 26, Rebel McKenzie hits the world with her “boatload of sass.” Stop by Under the Honeysuckle Vine for Rebel’s blog launch party!
I loved these characters so much, I didn’t want to let them go. But now I’m glad they’re almost out there for you to meet: Rudy and Lynette and Bambi and Lacey Jane and Job the Marriage Turtle and Doublewide the Wonder Cat.
We stumbled on Westmoreland State Park last January. The park was one of six opened in the 1930s. When we saw the row of housekeeping cabins along the backbone of the cliffs overlooking the Potomac River, we knew we had to come back. And so we booked Cabin 24 a few weeks ago.
State park housekeeping cabins are equipped with a full kitchen, bath, two bedrooms and linens, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Since my idea of roughing it is no room service, I brought bed quilts, pillows, lap quilts, a hamper of food and dishes, drinking water, ice, books, journals, cameras, a box of Q-tips, and toilet paper.
The view of the river–more than eleven miles wide at this point–made it worth hauling all that stuff. I sat on the screened in porch and listened. Behind the safety fence, the woods fell away down the steep cliff. I heard a strange cry, like a child. Two deer bounded through underbrush along the fenceline. I never knew deer called to each other.
After supper (in a restaurant–I never cracked a can), we settled in Cabin 24 for the evening and made plans for the next day. First, we’d watch the sun rise over the river. Then I’d hike down to Fossil Beach and hunt for shark’s teeth. I found a journal guests had written in, curled up in a chair–or tried to, considering the indestructible state park furniture–and read entries that began, “Hi Fokes.” One couple had brought their “camping cat,” Gamby. I could imagine big fat Winchester freaking out on the screened porch. The whole point of our trip was to get away from cats.
Then I got to the grisly entries. Sunrise was at five-thirty. One woman gleefully reported spotting raccoons, deer, a corn snake on the trail to Fossil Beach, and a “feild” mouse in our cabin that was fond of scurrying across the floor in the evenings. Nervously I tucked my feet up about the time my husband realized he’d forgotten coffee (but not forty-eleven flashlights) and declared tomorrow we’d have to drive fourteen miles to the restaurant and be there when it opened at six-thirty. Not a minute later.
I knew I’d have to go to breakfast with sheet-creases ironed in my face–there is no standing between my husband and his first cup of coffee–so I took a shower that night. The quaint plumbing, apparently not updated since the day the park opened, felt like someone dumping a bucket of rivets on my head. That night my husband slept like a brick, even on those state park two-thread count sheets, but I kept worrying about that mouse. And that corn snake. How early did he sprawl across the trail to scare the unwary?
“It’s six-thirty!” my husband yelled the next morning, jumping into his pants like a fireman. “We missed the sunrise. And we have to go for coffee!”
“Forget the sun,” I said, hoping the map of Africa wasn’t pressed into my forehead. “What time do snakes get up?”
But he was halfway out the door. The twenty-minute drive took ten minutes. Any creases in my face were blown away by G-forces. After breakfast, I changed into hiking shoes, grabbed my colander and hit the trail to Fossil Beach. No snakes, but plenty of flies that bumbled in my frizzy hair.
Fossil Beach is carved from Horsehead Cliffs, a natural cove where shark’s teeth and other marine fossils have drifted in with the tides for eons. Sharks have about three thousand teeth and get new ones every few weeks–you’d think I would have found one measly tooth. The beach was completely deserted and so peaceful, I would have stayed longer except I figured that corn snake was probably staking his napping place on the trail.
It was a blissful two days. We read and sat and ate and sat and ate some more. They day we left, I walked out to the fence for one last look at the river. And found this luna moth clinging to the wire. (Look close–she is spinning silk.) A pair of eagles rowed overhead. The tide was coming in–Fossil Beach was completely underwater.
It was time to pack up and go, but we were already planning to come back to Cabin 24.
“Who moved the Q-tips?” my husband asked. “I left the box open on the table. They’re out of the box. See?” Sure enough, several Q-tips were straggled across the table like jackstraws.
Next time we’d bring lots of cheese to keep a certain tiny little guest occupied.
“We must not let in daylight upon magic.” Walter Bagehot (in reference to keeping Queen Victoria out of politics and the monarchy noble)
Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved carnivals–fireman’s carnivals, carnivals popped up overnight in parking lots like toadstools after rain, fundraising carnivals. The Centreville Volunteer Fireman’s carnival was the highlight of my summer. We’d wait till dusk, then cruise up the highway to the fire department, park on flattened grass and hurry to the midway, our feet churning puffs of fine red dust.
My favorite game was Pick-Up Ducks. As plastic ducks bobbed along the metal trough, I’d grab one, eager to see the number on its dripping bottom. Prizes were tacky and forgettable but at least I always won. I’d try to pitch pennies, but never landed one in the green Depression glass saucers.
Next I’d tear off to ride on the Merry Mixer with my stepfather, who was puce green himself when the ride was over. The Ferris wheel looked exciting, lit from top to bottom, but I had a fear of heights. No matter how big I was, I’d always pick out a fine steed on the merry-go-round.
My love for carnivals shows up in my books–an expression I used in The Big Green Pocketbook, the last chapters in Rebel McKenzie take place at a fireman’s carnival. When I was ten, I discovered a book called The Secret of the Stone Griffins, by Elizabeth Finnegan, that had a carny background. I learned a few of the secrets of the carny world, such as the swords the sword swallowers use are one molded piece so they don’t break off. Not a glaring searchlight on the magic, just a brief little match flame.
This weekend my husband and I were in Colonial Beach for the annual fireman’s carnival and parade. We missed both parades (too late for one, too hot for the other), but strolled along the carnival and craft fair. I hoped to see the carny ticket seller slap a customer on the back with a chalky hand so the concession guys would know he was an easy “mark.” Most of the men ambling around sported tattoos so it was hard to tell if they were juice men (ride operators and electricians) or people like us.
It was a gorgeous day, cloudless blue skies, June-hot. The gaudily-painted rides seemed overexposed in the bright sunlight. No one opted to hop on the Dizzy Dragons or the Airplanes. I couldn’t tell what most of the rides were supposed to do. There was no jenny (merry-go-round) and the rides were still attached to the flat-bed trailers they were transported on. In the old days, rides would be take off piece by piece and assembled by hand, with a decorative skirt to hide the wires.
But mainly it felt wrong to have a carnival running at noon. Carnivals should doze in the daytime like lions. At dusk, the carnies should flip on the lights, wake their rides slowly, then let the beasts roar to life. Then, and only then, is the magic real.
[Note: I processed my most unmagical photos in Elements 10 and RadLab to give them the oversaturated, vintage postcard quality.]
My husband’s home health nurse spotted the book on our coffee table. “That looks like the house I once lived in,” she said, pointing to the old house on the cover. “It was in Crouch. Nobody would want to go there.” I did. A place named Crouch? We were so on it, our first Story Road trip of the summer.
Road trips start early, too early sometimes, but a stop at Paul’s Bakery helps ease us into the notion. We located Crouch on the Virginia atlas–it was in King and Queen county, a long drive east and south. Crouch had better be worth it, I thought.
King and Queen county was established in 1691, named for King William and Queen Mary. It’s the longest county in Virginia and has only one traffic light (and that wasn’t really necessary). The population was larger in the 1790 census than the 2000 census, now fewer than 7000 souls. That tidbit should have prepared us for the fact we saw–in the entire length of the county–one live person.
We’ve never been in such an isolated place. We passed corn and soybean fields, bordered by thick woods. Ditches blazed with tiger lilies and wild roses tumbled down banks. But no houses, or at least none that could be seen from the two-lane roads. I heard a rooster, saw a bobwhite walking along, startled a turkey vulture eating lunch.
The county had to survive on something besides corn and we found it: clear-cutting. A hateful practice of taking the good timber and leaving snags and sad stubs. Evidence of stripping the woods was everywhere.
Crouch was nothing, or nothing we could see. We came upon Crouches Road, but no little sign that said “Crouch.” I’d planned to have my photograph taken as I squatted by the sign. My spirits lifted a little when we discovered Dragon Farm here. I pictured fields of baby dragons crouching beneath cabbage leaves. This wasn’t the first time we’d chased a place named on the atlas but in reality wasn’t there.
I wanted a happier ending for the story of this county, something besides clear-cutting. I drove us down a gravel road to a fish hatchery (if I couldn’t have baby dragons then baby bass would have to do). And there, in a charmingly cluttered 1937 office, we chatted with the lone person we could find, the manager of the fish hatchery. Most of the ponds were empty, the baby fish having been trucked to various reservoirs and lakes around the state the week before.
From there we drove to Walkerton, the site of the county’s only store/gas station/post office. My husband bought a root beer and peanuts (but could not be tricked into dropping the peanuts in the root beer and shaking it) while I noted a daycare center. This indicated industry besides logging, some place where women could work.
A little research turned up two cat litter factories along the Mattaponi River, which the county bordered. Across the river, in King William county, are three Native American reservations. I’d been to the Pamunkey reservation, where the descendents of Powhatan lived, and interviewed the two women who preserved the tradition of making pottery with the gray clay along the river. Now that clay is being drag-lined to produce cat litter.
This was a strange county. Close-minded and quiet. King and Queen didn’t give up its story to me. But I loved the peacefulness and abundance of birds in the longest county in Virginia. And maybe that was story enough.
…on our porch. This morning I went downstairs, whirled past the front door, and skidded to a stop. I caught a glimpse of sky blue through the sidelights.
All thoughts of feeding the cats or us or anything else flew out of my head. I ran back upstairs for my camera, then hurled myself out on the porch in my pajamas.
Two of my cul-de-sac neighbors, both close friends, have “snowball” bushes. They know I love hydrangeas and always admire their blue-sky blossoms tumbling through their fences. I halt at potted hydrangeas in grocery stores. I brake for pink and blue and purple hydrangeas (different soil than ours).
Someone knows how hard it’s been here lately. They believed we needed a piece of sky. They were right. I’ve been too busy to think straight. Just get up every day and go, go, go.
I brought the sky inside. Every time I look at those impossibly blue blooms, my thoughts rise, brush the ceiling like balloons, and drift through the roof, where they have enough room.
Sounds like a children’s story, doesn’t it? The story begins with this cup. I found it in an antique mall, hanging on a nail outside a dealer’s booth. It was $3.00. I would have paid three times that for this plain turquoise plastic cup. It reminded me of a set of dishes my mother had once, white Melmac with purple and turquoise violets and green leaves.
At the Paper Man’s shop, I unearthed this Jewel Tea catalog. I flipped through it and spotted the Royalon Melmac section. The violet and turquoise pattern (bottom left) triggered “Rosebud” in me again. I bought the catalog, even though those dishes weren’t quite like my mother’s.
After some research, I found my mother’s dishes.
Oh, how I loved these dishes! They were almost too pretty to eat off. I would carefully move mashed potatoes and beans and chicken aside to reveal the beautiful violets. Saturday mornings, I’d sit in front of the TV and eat Cheerios from the purple cereal bowl, watching cartoons like “Ruff and Reddy” and “Crusader Rabbit.” I’d tip the bowl to catch the last sugary milk drops and gaze into the purple bottom like it was a crystal ball.
My whole childhood was served on those dishes. Fried chicken with milk gravy, creamed corn, early June peas, chipped beef gravy on toast, pocketbook rolls, “pretty” salad, fried potatoes, and my everlasting favorite, the one thing I’d have my mother come back and fix me, a skillet of fried pattypan squash. Doled out with breakfast, lunch, and dinner were dollops of advice, scoops of gossip, spoonfuls of weather reports, and side dishes of stories about the old days. I’d take all of it, happily, even the unasked-for advice, on a purple and turquoise platter.
The Royalon Melmac Corsage consisted of a dinner plate, bread and butter plate, cup, saucer, and cereal and fruit bowls. My mother had place settings for four and a set of glasses to match. Over the years our everyday dishes became crosshatched with knife and fork marks and the glasses got broken. My mother replaced the Melmac with more durable and modern Corelle.
But the Corelle wasn’t pretty. Plain white with a stingy little green design around the rim. No beautiful violets to uncover, no solid purple to gaze dreamily into. Mama’s cooking was as good as ever, but the stories seemed to slide off the glossy Corelle surface and were forgotten, like the dishes.
This is the way I remember my mother, in this 1969 Polaroid. She’s wearing a housedress she’d made and is getting ready to fry chicken. I can almost smell it! In the dish drainer is a violet and turquoise plate.
Today is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 94. If she were here, I’d give her this cup filled with pink roses. I’m giving myself a present instead–one Royalon Melmac Corsage salad plate ordered from eBay. One plate–it’s all I need for a few cookies or a piece of cake in the evenings when I sit down to rest . . . and travel back to the old days.