Literary Lights

I’ve just returned from a week in Massachusetts, where I spent three days at South High School in Worcester, for the fifth year in a row–great school, wonderful principal, (Maureen Binienda) and excellent teachers and students.

Then I spent the weekend in Boston, where I received a “Literary Lights for Children” award from the Associates of the Boston Public Library.

Here is what I said when I received the award, after being introduced by Kajayla Boyd, a poised and beautiful 8th grader from Beacon Academy:

Literary Lights for Children

September 29, 2013, Boston Public Library

Thank you, Kajayla, for that thoughtful and beautiful introduction, and thanks to everyone who has made this day possible.

When Kajayla wrote to me, her questions were interesting and perceptive, and I found myself thinking about them even after I’d answered her.

For example: “Does your past,” she asked, “strongly influence your current writing? If so how?”

That question led me back to my earliest influences, the voices of my parents.

My father was a great story-teller. I was one of ten children, and almost every day, usually late afternoon while my mother was making supper, my father would sit in his big green chair and we would all clamber onto his lap or lean against the arms and back of his chair, or maybe peek around a doorway so he didn’t know we were listening—because if you were in the room, he would name a character after you, and often those character descriptions were not exactly flattering.

I might be hiding behind the door, and he would catch a glimpse of an elbow sticking out, and I would hear, “Then who do you suppose came clomping down the road? A big old clumsy mule named…HELEN.” I would come running out from behind the door, and punch my dad in the arm, and then—I’d settle in with my sisters to listen to the rest of the story. I acted mad, but here’s a secret—it meant something to me to know that my father knew I was there, knew I was listening. I was included.

And my mother—when she was not busy in the kitchen, and sometimes when she was—had a head full of poems that she often recited for us. We might be walking to the mailbox together, our shadows dancing along in front of us, and she would begin, “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, and what can be the use of him is more than I can see.” It wasn’t long before we could say the entire poem along with her.

I look back at those years, and I see the roots of many aspects of my writing: the rhythms and rhymes of language as my mother spoke out loud the poems she knew by heart, the intricacies of plot as the stories rolled out of my father’s mind, a new story every day.

Now I trust that stories will come to me, and I write them down with special attention to the sound and shape of the language.

I know everyone does not grow up in the same kind of home I did. I imagine my young readers from their different homes and backgrounds, and I drop little hints to let them know I see them, even if they are hiding behind the door, so to speak. There’s no need to hide, I suggest, come on in. You are included.

This afternoon, I love to look out and see that so many of you have come in close. I catch a glimpse of stories and poems that are beginning in you now, and look forward with great joy to seeing how they will find their full expression.