Inauguration Day. Except for exercise class, I stayed home. We have no TV and my husband took the newspapers with him to work. But the Internet sprayed me with the day’s events. People would not stop talking. Talk, talk, talk. By the time I went to bed, my stomach was in knots.
Saturday I left the house for Richmond. I wanted a day away from politics and hoped another 50 miles from D.C. would do it.
The weather was gray and mizzly. I wanted to catch the Jefferson exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society. Most of Jefferson’s personal papers are archived in the Massachusetts Historical Society and select letters, books, and drawings were on loan. The show would close on Sunday.
I arrived too early and walked around. Sometimes I think I might like living in the city, with its different houses, runners, dog-walkers, coffee shops, bookstores, quirky boutiques. In the city, I could be left alone with my own thoughts.
If I believed I’d avoid other people’s conversations, I was wrong. Even though no one spoke a word to me, their voices were broadcast loud and clear. These photos don’t reflect my opinions, they only document what I encountered on one street.
These people intruding on my thoughts, pushing their agendas at me, made me grumpy. I decided I didn’t like the city. I don’t drink coffee and have no desire to work on a laptop in a coffee shop. Boutiques are generally filled with things I don’t need. Even the bookstores were disappointing (no real children’s section).
My feet hurt by the time I trudged back to the Virginia Historical Society. But I felt lighter when I entered the gallery featuring Jefferson’s papers. Much has been written about Jefferson and in recent years he’s become a popular target. Many people think they know him, but in truth, no one does.
I was delighted by his drawing of the “Pigeon House,” no mere dovecote, but a dwelling I’d move into tomorrow. I marveled at his very tiny handwriting in his Farm Book. Unlike most of the founding fathers, Jefferson’s cursive is readable; his thoughts clear as a Virginia creek. He was a writer and I am, too.
I stood a long time before his handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, the document that began the journey toward our right to free speech. Those people on the sidewalk were entitled to their way of thinking, just as I’m entitled to mine.
Across the hall in another gallery I found a surprise: an exhibit of original illustrations from recent children’s books. My spirits lifted higher. After viewing the art, I sat down with the collection of books. Nothing soothes like sitting with a lap of picture books.
Frazzled nerves calmed, I drove home. Okay, I like some things about the city. Museums. I’m overdue for a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Soon I’ll board the commuter train to D.C. I’ll ignore coffee shops and political chatter and enjoy the part of the city that belongs to all of us, but can be mine for a day.
Today is the launch day of my newest–and first 2017–book, Tooth Fairy’s Night. It’s a Level 1 Step into Reading, written for the newest readers. And here is how it came about.
In the spring of 2015, I was restless and in need of “filling the well,” as most long-term career writers must do from time to time. I went to New York City by myself, not to attend a conference or sign books at a convention (something I hadn’t done in years anyway), but to find my own New York.
I had written two Step into Reading books for Random House, Pumpkin Day and Apple Picking Day. So I arranged to stop by Random House and met with Heidi and Anna, the SiR editors. They asked me to write a Level 1 (the hardest!) on the Tooth Fairy.
I gulped. Fantasy and imaginative writing is not my thing. All of my books are grounded in reality. But I have long admired children’s writers who reach for the impossible, who make something out of nothing, who don’t need a bit of research. I said yes.
From there, I went to the American Museum of Natural History for the first time ever. My other RH editor, Frances Gilbert, urged me to go and told me I’d be astounded. She was right. From the first second I entered the AMNH, I knew I’d found my New York. I stayed till closing time. The next day I was there when it opened and again stayed till closing.
The exhibitions in the museum are very much grounded in the real world, but it took the imagination of many naturalists, scientists, and artists to make this one of the most famous, and most attended, museum in the world.
As I roamed the halls, I thought about my assignment. What about the Tooth Fairy? The practical side of me compared her to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny who only work one night a year. The Tooth Fairy, however, works every night. And she doesn’t have a bunch of elves to help her!
The Tooth Fairy, I decided, was a shift worker. She carried a lunch box (union rules state she must take a break). She had to pack her supplies. She had to feed her pet. Before she left her cottage, she checked to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything.
And off she went to work.
Meanwhile, back at home in Candice’s Office/Workshop (also without elves), I got ready to go to Hollins for a summer of teaching. After I’d been at Hollins a week or so, my SiR editor asked how the Tooth Fairy book was coming.
I gulped. It wasn’t coming at all. I hadn’t even started it! Random House would like the book to come out in time for Dental Health Month in 2017. But if I couldn’t do it, my editor assured me, then 2018 would be okay.
What would the Tooth Fairy do? She never slacked off because she was busy with something else. Nope, she showed up, every single night because it was her job and she couldn’t disappoint all those children.
I told my editor she’d have a manuscript by Tuesday. This was Friday. Then I stayed in my apartment on campus that weekend and wrote and wrote and wrote. Draft after draft. Level 1 readers must rhyme, must use meter, and–clearly–must make sense.
By Monday I had a draft to send to my editor. It needed work, but we would make our 2017 deadline. When we were finished, I was thrilled with the story.
Now it’s out with Monique Dong’s cheerful illustrations that show the impossible.
Of all the books I’ve written, this one–and my new picture book coming out this summer–make me feel like a children’s book author. The kind that can write stories from the imagination.
Update from Monique Dong, illustrator:
“Working on Tooth Fairy’s Night was a dream come true for me as a new illustrator! The story was so sweet and charming and drew me in from the first read. It’s such a creative take on the tooth fairy concept that will delight children for years to come!
I had the wonderful opportunity in this project to work with Random House. They were supportive and encouraging, from the rough sketches through to the final colour. I’m so excited to see this book on the shelves!”
I’m late putting up a New Year’s post, owing to the fact I had a book due, I was hospitalized, and there were all those holidays. Being in the hospital for three days (and three mostly sleepless nights) gave me plenty of time to think about the coming year and change. A new year usually generates resolutions, goals, or “word of the year.”
I have no resolutions because, like most people, hard resolves tend to shatter within a matter of weeks. I’m too old to have goals: it’s all I can do to keep moving forward with my writing career and teaching.
I used to have a “word of the year.” I remember my first word of the year, claimed back in January 1987. It was “onward” (stolen from my Mary Engelbreit calendar). I was all ready to charge onward into a year of writing when, just after New Year’s Day doctors gave up on my ill stepfather and sent him home to die. Not the kind of onward I’d hoped for.
The magazines I read while I was sick devoted whole articles to promoting “no” as word of the year, perfect sense for people who hurl themselves from one place, one activity, one day to the next. I’ve felt that way myself this past year. To me, “no” sounds strident. I plan to practice saying “no,” but I don’t want to wave that banner for 2017.
If I had a word of the year, it would be “wonder,” a commodity we have precious little of when every question can be answered with a swipe. Pull out a phone and curiosity is immediately smacked into fact. Close on the heels of “wonder” is “pay attention.” (Two words, so I cheat.)
All around me people chatter, multi-task on phones and laptops, drive while eating and drinking, walk with headphones, eyes straight ahead. Everyone seems to have tunnel vision. I’m the only one who stops in the Walmart parking lot to watch a flock of Canada geese fly low overhead. It’s an astonishing sight, always, and deserves our attention.
The end of the year is also time for assessment. Since I’m deep into my career, I’m not about to flit off in another direction (that too-old thing again). I ponder why I’m doing what I do, and that inevitably leads me back to my childhood self. At ten, I was so full of wonder, I could barely stand up. Everything was fascinating: dirt, birds, stars, rocks, dinosaurs, clouds, trees. I couldn’t get enough of the world around me.
Annie Dillard talks about waking up in her book An American Childhood:
Who turned on the lights? You did, by waking up. You flipped a light switch, started up the wind machine, kicked on the flywheel that spins the years . . . Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you . . . Do you remember, remember, remember?
I do remember. And I want some of that feeling back. It’s still there, underneath the dailyness of cleaning toilets and buying milk and washing the sheets. The planet ripples a little when I have to sit down to emails and go to appointments. I’m older, not dead.
So here’s what I’m going to do this year. Wake up. Be wide-eyed with wonder. Because I’m a grown-up, I’ll call it a project. I’m keeping a nature journal, writing down what I see, what I’m paying attention to. Even if I can’t go outside, I’ll observe from the window. I’ll draw in it, maybe paint a little. Use photos. The important thing is that I’ll make note I was aware of this world, every day.
I’ll share some of what I see and hear and experience with you (which will be mercifully better than my endless whining). You can come, too.
Flip the light switch again. Pay attention with me.