By Luli Gray
Chapel Hill, NC, USA
I’ve always loved the books I knew as a child. My father read to my sister and me every day, so did my mother, and older brothers. My head is full of phrases and images from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, The Wind in the Willows, Anderson’s fairy tales, and some rather peculiar books, like Brave Mr. Buckingham, which would probably be considered much too violent for today’s children.
I re-read those books often, and find something new each time. Reading Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, I discovered that everyone I know is a character, or combination of characters from those books. I have friends and family who are Piglet, Pooh, Kanga, Tigger, Owl. Me, I spent years being alternately Tigger and Eeyore, not a good mixture at all.
But though I love these books, I never thought of writing one. I became a children’s writer by accident, when a short story I was working on suddenly produced a dragon, a saint, a child. Even then I didn’t see what was happening till my sister, who is my first reader, said:
“Luli, this is a children’s book.”
“No it’s not!” I said, “I don’t write for children.”
“Well,” she said, “You do now.”
So, like almost everything else I’ve ever done, I fell into children’s books backwards.
In a remarkably short time, I had acquired an agent, then a publisher and editor. It was exciting, but I had no idea what I was doing. I knew nothing about the publishing business, or that it usually takes eighteen months to publish a chapter book. I didn’t even know they were called chapter books. I knew nothing about current children’s books, and had no interest in those written by other people.
I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina the year my first book, Falcon’s Egg, was published. It was quite successful; it got good reviews and several awards.
I was invited to visit some of the local elementary and middle schools, and met people who had liked Falcon’s Egg, and were passionate about children’s literature.
Before long I joined a group of teachers, librarians, and writers who meet once a month to read and talk about children’s books.
I had never met a children’s writer. When I was young, writers didn’t visit schools the way they do now, and I’d never thought of them as real people. If I thought of them at all I pictured a fusty little man with leather patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket, or else a dithery old lady with pink cheeks and twinkling blue eyes.
And now, here I sat among a whole passel of writers, eating cookies with teachers and librarians who seemed to know everything there is to know about children’s books.
These writers did not twinkle. They were intellectuals, quick witted, lively, with a rowdy sense of the absurd and a passion for books and language. They wrote children’s books on purpose. Good books. And they actually seemed to know what they were doing, as I certainly did not.
The Book Group introduced me to books by writers I’d never heard of: Joan Bauer, Lois Lowry, Gary Paulsen, Karen Hesse, and many more.
Reading those books, listening to the Group discuss them, made me wonder. Why are they called children’s books anyhow? Why are they separated from all the other books, in a sort of pastel ghetto of tiny chairs, giant pillows, and stuffed bunny wabbits? Why is it only children, and the people who read to them, who know anything about them?
There’s so much rubbish for grown-ups to read, in supermarkets, airports, on Kindle. Best seller lists are dominated by trashy novels, banal self-help books, ghost-written memoirs by half-wit celebrities, and always, of course, the final, definitive, can’t fail diet book.
Whenever I see someone about to plunk down thirty bucks for the latest thriller or bodice ripper, I want to hand them a copy of If Not For Winn-Dixie or The Invention of Hugo Cabret or The Fault in Our Stars, and say, “Ya know, you might like this.”
The books I read and heard as a child are part of who I am. It’s a comfort, and sometimes a revelation to read them again.
Reading new writers, looking at new picture books now is a very different experience from reading Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh at six, or ten. I have more than half a century of life, experience, and reading stuffed into my head, like a hoarder’s attic, full of treasures and trash and dust. And yet, there is something about a book like Joan Bauer’s Hope Was Here or Jaqueline K. Ogburn’s The Bake Shop Ghost that nourishes me as few other books can. I don’t know exactly how, or why. But I re-read those books again and again, when I am tired, or sad, or worried. They make me feel…not young again…but more myself. These days that is a combination of Pooh with a dash of Tigger.
And that, as Pooh would say, is a very grand thing.