I didn’t want to go. I’d had bronchitis and an upper respiratory infection for nearly three weeks—not much voice or energy and a disgusting cough. I was behind in my work. Our house was starting to look like one of those abandoned houses I photograph.
But mostly I didn’t want to go because I’d be jolted off the Other Planet my family has been on since we got the news in January. It would be hard, I knew, to navigate the real world even for three days.
I stopped in Richmond first, taking homemade egg custard, checking on how my sister was doing since hospice had swooped in the week before. She seemed fine and her husband is doing well. Then I hit the road for Farmville, 120 miles away. After a short stint on a four-lane highway, I found myself on the first of many winding two-lane roads.
Though spring is slow coming to Virginia this year, maples showed budding red among the bare oaks. Robins and bluebirds and grackles were busy, despite the freezing cold. I wanted to stop a dozen times and take pictures—an abandoned clapboard church in the woods, old tobacco barns. But I had a tight schedule.
I checked in my hotel and drove to Longwood University. I gave my speech and chatted at the reception. When asked what I did to relax, I told them about photographing what I call Vanishing Virginia. People seemed interested I’m driven to do this, with all its attendant risks, though I figured they were really wondering why I didn’t take a vacation like a normal person.
As it turned out, the special collections librarian at Longwood approached me about a new digital collection they are starting. Apparently my Vanishing Virginia pictures will have a home. People can view the past as I record it. I’ll retain copyright, but more importantly, my photos will have a life beyond this blog. I’m honored to be invited to participate.
Early the next morning, I drove in the pitch dark down a two-lane road, heading for Charlottesville. I watched dawn break over the hills as I made my way through Amelia, Prince Edward, Buckingham, and Fluvanna counties, itching to take pictures.
The school I was visiting had hosted two other authors that week, but they welcomed me like I was the first writer they’d ever seen. I walked into the library and the librarian jumped up from the little class she was teaching and hugged me. And so began the most wonderful day I’ve spent in an elementary school in a long time.
All the schools I visit are run so well, I’m amazed how they do it, each member of the staff and faculty putting in 110 percent every single day. But some school libraries are disappointing. Just as when I step in an abandoned house and can sense its story, I have the same feeling when I enter a school library. Some libraries are too quiet and the librarians seem to be marking time.
Not this librarian! All the students loved her and I did, too. I could have stayed in that room the rest of my life. She was generous, funny, caring, and she made every single student feel special. She tirelessly taught media classes, ran my complicated day of presentations, and—best of all—read aloud to small groups. She chose an older book of mine, Big Rigs. As I listened, I learned how to make a book work for children, how to engage them as readers, how to keep them interested.
Yes, I write the books, but it was exciting to observe a dedicated librarian in action and see what happens to my books once they are out the door. The day got better. One of the teachers had read the first chapter of Rebel McKenzie to a fifth grade class. The class had begged the teacher to keep reading. What’s important isn’t that my book is so great, but that older kids aren’t read to that much. Story. We are all hungry for it.
By the time I finished my presentation of Rebel McKenzie—admittedly a girly book—every one of those fourth and fifth graders, including the boys, wanted to read it. When I left, I was tired, but it was that good kind of tired.
Next I drove to downtown Charlottesville to my hotel. A quick change and then I zipped over to another school for an evening program called Sweet Reads. The school put on a dinner for all the participating authors in the Virginia Festival of the Book. Parents cooked wonderful food and we ate in the library. I was charmed by the vintage children’s book table decorations.
After we ate, we went to the gym for a dessert reception. Nikki Giovanni gave a rousing poetry reading. The authors sat at tables around the gym. I have never seen so many kids! They didn’t know me from Adam’s housecat, but I signed Iva and Rebel for a solid hour and a half.
The next day I was on a YA panel that didn’t start until the afternoon. I relaxed in the hospitality suite which was filled with writers of all stripes. I listened to environmentalist writers and mystery novelists. I talked about how I write books for and about the kids nobody sees, those living on the margins. Unfortunately, those kids don’t buy books.
The other writers encouraged my dream, which has been flagging lately, and asked how I approach my “research.” I found myself telling a roomful of strangers my own sad and difficult childhood. They hung on every word and once again I was impressed by the power of story. This group helped me understand better what I’m trying to do, and even how the photography fits in. I left for my panel, feeling buoyed.
I was delighted to be on a panel with Meg Medina, Gigi Amenteau, and Lex Thomas (well, half of the writing team), YA writers in total command of their material and their audience. I took lots of mental notes, learning from the pros.
From there, I hopped in the little red truck and aimed it home, once more on two-lane roads that wound me through rolling estates. The other part of rural Virginia. While the countryside was beautiful, I was not tempted to stop and take pictures. The counties whirled by–Albemarle, Louisa, Orange.
And then I was home again. My husband had covered the table with pies, chips, dip, sandwiches, cheeses, crackers, soft drinks, bakery donuts, and a bouquet of pink tulips. That night I slept hard but woke from a strange dream.
I was in a classroom of children. One little girl was trying to read the address on an envelope. She kept crying in frustration. I went over and put my arm around her and tried to teach her to read the address. She would get some of the words, but would break away. And no wonder–who wants to read something as dull as an envelope? The other kids wanted to learn to read, too, but seemed reluctant.
So I told them how I learned to read with a Nancy and Sluggo comic and how I read to my niece and, with my first paycheck, bought her ten books and a little one dollar shelf to keep them in. The kids were so close to me, I could feel their breath on my cheek.
When I woke, I felt a disconnect between my writing for kids, selling to editors in New York, promoting my books through social media, watching kids in schools that seem driven by SOLs. Everyone is working hard at their jobs, but something is missing.
I padded barefoot downstairs to talk to my husband, my best sounding board. We discussed the students who slide through the net–he works in a community college system and is aware that many students struggle with reading and writing. I kept thinking about the frustrated crying girl in my dream. I thought about how kids of all ages love to be read to and realized I want to read to them.
My husband believes something positive came out of this trip—the talking and storytelling and watching the librarian and meeting the kids who bought my books without hearing me speak and the ones who wanted to hear more of Rebel. The miles of two-lane roads that spooled under my truck tires. The need I have to visit rural places, not just to take pictures, but to meet those kids and read to them. I don’t know how all this will work out, but I know they are hungry for story out there.
I also know how fast days pass, how quickly kids grow up, and that the window isn’t open forever. I hope I’m equal to the challenge.
It’s hard to write now. So hard. Spring is coming in and when spring is gone, someone very close to me will be leaving.
I love spring–it’s my favorite season. But I have prayed it would come slow, or even not at all. Yes, I’d keep winter if that would keep that person here.
But you don’t get to make bargains and the prayers that are answered are very small ones, little mercies, like his hair not falling out after the one chemo treatment that made him so sick and promised so very little time if it did work, that he opted out of more treatments.
So every week I make egg custard, which he loves, and take it to him. I bring him and my sister small treats. I ask questions that lead to stories. When I come home again, a little quieter after each visit, I go to my computer and write down every word of those stories.