I became a writer because of one book. I was home sick from school one day in fourth grade. Mama let me build a reading cave in the living room, a bedspread draped over the card table, furnished with a quilt and my bed pillow. Bored, I investigated the bookcase behind the red glider rocker. It contained Doubleday Book Club titles, such as Unto These Hills and the intriguing-sounding (but actually dull) Panther’s Moon.
Wedged between the grown-up books was a book my older sister had left behind: Trixie Belden and the Mysterious Visitor. I carried it into my reading cave as Candice Farris, nine-year-old-with-a-cold. When I came out, I was Candice Farris, future-writer-of-books. I’d already been writing stories a few years, and reading everything I could get my hands on. This book made me a writer.
Why this particular book? For one thing, the characters are regular kids. Trixie is a thirteen-year-old girl who loves horses and hates chores and most school work. But she isn’t dumb. She figures out mysteries that stump grown-ups.
In Mysterious Visitor, I learned about dominant and recessive genes. Trixie: “If we knew that Mrs. Lynch’s parents both had blue eyes we’d know for sure that Uncle Monty was an impostor. It’s the Mendelian theory of heredity.” Brian, her brother: “Blue is recessive, so blue-eyed parents can’t have a brown-eyed child.”
This tidbit sent me flying to the bathroom mirror. My mother’s eyes were chocolate brown. My father’s were blue. Mine weren’t either but a light goldy brown. What did that mean? Was there an impostor in my family?
I loved the fact Trixie lives in the country in a modest house (though she has a rich best friend): “The Manor House . . . formed the western boundary of the Beldens’ Crabapple Farm, which nestled down in a hollow. Honey’s home was luxurious, but Trixie preferred the little white frame house where she lived with her three brothers and their parents.”
Like many girls, I identified with Trixie; I wanted to be Trixie. The closest thing was to write stories like that. Trixie had adventures, sometimes even dangerous ones, but she always went home to Crabapple Farm.
Just as I once spent my days in my tree house, in the woods, or down at the creek, I always returned home to the familiar yellow light spilling from the kitchen window, the smell of fried chicken and biscuits.
As explained in The Scientist in the Crib, young children “are torn between the safety of a grown-up embrace and the irresistible drive to explore. A toddler in the park seems attached to his mother by an invisible bungee cord: he ventures out to explore and then, in sudden panic, races back to the safe haven, only to venture forth again some few minutes later. Even as grown-ups, it seems a part of the human condition to be perpetually torn between home and away.”
Adventure—going away—is one reason I still write for children. Home is the second reason. Home, the real place we come back to after a day of adventure. And home the idea, the part that lives inside us no matter our actual address. Because I didn’t always have a home. The nine-year-old me remembered that and was figuring out a way to protect the four-year-old me.
In TalkTalk, E.L. Konigsburg states: “When a person writes he returns home—to childhood—and in that sense, home is a time as well as a place. It is often a small, dark place where we were often frightened. Childhood as home was not always comfortable, and it is often not fun to return to, but it is a place we all carry around inside of us, and it must be looked into and occasionally aired out. It is the place where we were the most raw, most unvarnished, most uncluttered with the packaging of civilization.”
Home is the single theme that ties almost all of my books together. Having a home, not having a home, leaving home . . . wanting to go back home. Lately, the kids I write about don’t live in Starbucks-studded suburbs. I’m more drawn to kids who live in gritty reality. Trailers, motels, homeless shelters, “piled-in” with relatives (as I was). Trips to Family Dollar with Meemaw, Sunday and Wednesday church, working in the garden.
Last night, I half-woke with the sense that I was someone else. No, not someone else, but my child-self. For brief seconds, I was in touch with her again. Unsettled feelings whirled about her. Emotions churned, growing Wonderland-like bigger or smaller. How did I manage those all thoughts and fears when I was nine?
The problems of grown-ups, E.L. Konigsburg believes, are definite, while children deal with “vague problems . . . fears and uncertainties.” The hardest job we have as writers for children is “to make concrete words out of those vague, pervading anxieties.”
As a kid, I escaped vague and not-so-vague anxieties through books like Trixie Belden and the Mysterious Visitor. Trixie had problems, too, but they were neatly contained within cardboard covers. When the mystery was solved, she went home to Crabapple Farm. I read for that feeling of home-away-home satisfaction.
Away and home. There and Back Again. Those are the main reasons I still write for children. It’s why I leave the clutter of civilization and return to my childhood, brave that storm of emotions, and, if I’m very lucky, stumble upon the rare joy of learning something new about the world.
Whether it’s 2015 or 1961, kids want to be Trixie Belden or Bilbo Baggins. They will always need to break away, explore, get in trouble, figure things out for themselves. And they will always need to go home again, to the single room, the trailer, the aunt’s basement, the Manor House on the hill, the little white frame house nestled in a hollow.
A little over a month ago, I was editing chapter seven of a chapter book I’d been working on, on and off, for five years. I set my pen down. The book was dead. It had been on life support the last six months, but I could not pull it through the knothole.
This was a first for me. To quit on a book before I’d finished the second draft. I’d reluctantly let projects go after multiple drastic revisions, multiple submissions, and many restless nights. But despite all the changes to the plot, the addition and subtraction of characters, the shift from third person to first person and back to third again, despite convincing myself this was the first in a four-book series that was important, the book was deader than a nit in a blizzard.
I didn’t care about my character. The story was an uphill slog. And if it was a slog for me, I couldn’t imagine any reader taking a shine to this book, much less an editor signing me up for a four-book series. It was a difficult decision to make, but I put the project in the drawer with relief, not regret.
Then I had to figure out what to do next.
Over the years, people have asked me why I don’t write for adults. Lately, I sense they are serious and not just wondering when I’ll be able to shed my training wheels and go for a real spin. And honestly, when I stand in front of the cluttered children’s section of Barnes and Noble, I wonder the same thing myself. Why am I still writing for children?
I can spout the usual answers: because I’ve been doing this for nearly 35 years. Because I’ve wanted to do it since I was fifteen. Because I don’t know how to do anything else.
But as my 63rd birthday looms, and the field of children’s books grows harder to stay alive in, maybe I need to rethink my chosen career. Maybe there was a deeper reason why that chapter book croaked on me. It’s a question I’ve been pondering for weeks.
Yesterday morning I walked outside with my husband, out into a chilly March start to a day that promised later warmth, out into the drumming of a downy woodpecker and high-crowned budding of the sweet gum, and I said, “I should be in my tree house.” It was an automatic reaction that seeped out from under 53 years of scabbed over events, work, and the dailiness that comprises our grown-up lives.
At age ten, my tree house was where you’d find me every weekend morning until school let out, and then every morning all summer long. I got up as the day unfurled and hurled myself into it.
Last night as I was drifting off to sleep, I climbed up into my tree house again, remembering how it was built in one day by my stepfather and my oldest cousin. I was afraid of heights but I wanted a tree house more than anything. My stepfather built the platform on posts against an oak tree. A shingled roof slanted over the walls, three windows, and narrow doorway. Best of all, he built a sturdy, shallow-stepped staircase with safety rails on both sides.
My stepfather carried up that staircase and through the kid-sized doorway my sister’s old vanity. My mother cut up a pink shower curtain to hang at the windows. I brought up comic books and my bird guide and binoculars.
My tree house became my base camp, the place where I began each day, figuring how to spend the hours as I pleased. Annie Dillard experienced that freedom as well, and recounts her singular moment in An American Childhood: “I had essentially been had been handed my own life . . . My days were my own to plan and fill.”
And so were mine. I was alone much of the time, but seldom lonely. I had library books to read and stories to write, birds to watch, the encyclopedia of the wide world to study. I explored, learned, had small adventures. When my cousins came, I took them with me.
Yesterday warmed to 64 degrees. Kids in our cul-de-sac stayed outside all afternoon, bouncing balls, riding all manner of wheeled things up and down the court, yelling, claiming they were It, declaring out of bounds. I’ve been watching them for years and notice a pattern. Their play seems tethered to structure: vehicles, balls, rules. It’s good they’re outside at all, but back yards go ignored in favor of pavement.
We live in a fairly rural county, yet our neighborhood kids are locked into the routines of suburban kids everywhere: soccer, music lessons, church clubs, swim team. Mothers tell me their driving schedules and I want to lie down in a dark room. When, I wonder, do kids explore, learn things not taught in school or on the Internet, have small adventures?
Young Annie Dillard was given a rock collection, three grocery bags full. An old man had collected the rocks over his lifetime, died, and the paper boy wound up with the collection, which he gave to Annie. She cataloged and labeled the rocks until she “knew them by sight: that favorite dry red cinnabar, those Lake Erie ruby granites and flintstones, big chunks of pale oolite, dark wavy serpentine, gneiss, tourmaline, Apache tears, all of them.”
As she worked, she wondered about the old man:
Maybe he hadn’t died after all. Maybe he’d simply escaped underground. He cracked open Pittsburgh like a geode . . . He visited the underground corridors where spinel crystals twinned underfoot, and blue cubes of galena cut his hands, and carnelian nodules hung wet overhead among pale octahedrons of fluorite, among frost agates and moonstones, red jasper, blue lazulite, stubs of garnet, black chert. Of course he hadn’t come back. Who would?
My tree house is one reason I still write for children. Through my books, I want kids to have a base camp, a place to launch small adventures. I want them to be inspired to go outside, crack open their world, discover the treasures beneath their feet, and maybe—oh, how I hope—take back a few hours of their days.
There is time enough for schedules and computer monitors–years and years of it, in fact. Go, I want to beg kids today, go now. Before it’s too late.
When we left off a few months ago, the kindly old man and woman who adopted Atticus were wondering when their “little kitten” would settle down. The old man says the cat is calmer than he was. There are actual whole minutes when the cat just sits. However, the old woman, who stays with Atticus all the livelong day, knows better.
This is her office on a typical day.
This is the innocent perpetrator.
Atticus is a “carrier.” He carries things in his mouth, usually things that don’t belong to him. This Staples bag contained supplies when Atticus made off with it.
Once when the old woman was working in her office one evening, she heard odd noises coming up the stairs—the cat’s usual stampede (he still doesn’t walk) accompanied with a rattle, rattle, rattle. He trotted into her office dragging a full-sized bag of popcorn (already popped). He had stolen it off the kitchen counter, carried it through the downstairs rooms, up the stairs, down the hall, and into her office. She figured he wanted her to open the popcorn and put a movie on for him. His choice: “Aristocats.” Her choice: “That Darn Cat.”
Actually Atticus has no problem opening things. He hauled a bag of dried split peas off the counter, chewed a hole in the bag and ate some dried split peas. He still eats anything not studded with spikes or marked with a skull and crossbones. Oatmeal. Russell Stover chocolate caramel eggs. Scrambled eggs with hot sauce. Lettuce.
And he still gets into everything. Everything.
It wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t so mean. He’s so mean he can’t stand his own self.
He’s so mean he bites door hinges and faucets.
If meanness could be boxed it would look like this.
Atticus is also clever. How many cats could yank off the tablecloth and leave the Sunday Washington Post still in its exact spot?
The old woman, who gets grayer and more wrinkled and shorter every day, is thinking of hiring him out as a magician’s assistant. Or sending him out to work on a garbage truck.
She misses the old days when he’d tucker himself out and slept a few winks. The photo at the top of this post is dated December 9. That’s the ONLY time she and the kindly old man have ever seen the cat with his eyes closed.
He sleeps when they are out of the house (every chance they get–they fight over who goes to the grocery store). One day the old woman will snap a picture of dozing Atticus. She has a better chance of capturing a shot of the Loch Ness monster. In fact, she’d gladly trade the Loch Ness monster for Atticus. Nessie, at least, has settled down.