No Surprise Present

If your grandmother’s business card reads “Retired Teacher – Working Writer,” predictable presents come for birthdays and Christmas. On his tenth birthday, Jack called attention to this phenomenon at the dinner hosted by his parents with his best friend, his other grandmother, and us in attendance. When time came for presents, he picked up ours and said, “I think it’s a book.” He got a good laugh for stating the obvious.

The only surprise comes in which book I’ve gotten signed. One year, Gary Schmidt spoke at the Faye B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival on the release day for Okay for Now – and signed three Christmas presents. Sometimes it’s been a Jerry Pinkney picture book for an almost grown grandson so he can have the art. There’ve been books signed by Jane Yolen, Richard Peck, Lois Lowry, and Dan Yaccarino. This year’s are still a secret, but let me say I stood in line for more than two hours after a full day of workshops at the SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles to get some special books autographed.

And now there’s a new little one! Jack might tell his cousin what to expect – or maybe he can guess when he is old enough to examine his afghan made by the aforementioned grandmother. I crossed a multitude of stitches in this creation that includes Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin; Babar and Celeste; Spot; Paddington; and especially Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny.
Welcome to the world, Benjamin Taylor Butler. May your life be filled with stories. You can count on me to help that wish come true!


Cake and Icing

In her appearance on an agent’s panel at the recent SCBWI conference in Los Angeles, Deborah Warren said, “Cherish your gift and relish the gifts you give to children. When publishing comes it’s icing on the cake, but the cake is good nonetheless.” What an apropos metaphor!
    It set me to appreciating the metaphor in my own life. For almost three years, Jacob Ezra Katz’s journey to become Ezra Jack Keats has been the focus of my writing life. It’s been cake! It all started with a conversation with Ellen Ruffin, curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, and Deborah Pope, director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. They set me on an assignment to find treasures in the Keats archives for the 50th anniversary edition of The Snowy Day, winner of the Caldecott Award and the first full color picture book to feature a black child as the protagonist in a non-stereotypical way. A short deadline left me no time to linger among the two large boxes of correspondence files and the 170 + archival boxes of Keats memorabilia. However, I saw a biography begging to be written and knew I would return.
    Deadline finished, I came back to read each letter, see each painting, and take in each of Keats’s own anecdotes. Special Collections librarians managing the desk in the Reading Room kept me supplied with the next box and feigned interest in my end-of-the-day accounts of new things I’d learned. Come to think of it, the interest may not have been feigned. They mostly match me nerd for nerd.
    Months later with information stored in my computer, the sorting and writing began. Like setting out ingredients and measuring utensils on the counter, I put the stories in chronological order and began to write. The cake began to take shape. The smell from the oven has included the writing of the story, phone calls with questions from people who now consider me a Keats expert, friendships with “Keats people,” and a trip to New York for the opening of the Ezra Jack Keats exhibit at the Jewish Museum. I’ve loved every whiff of the aroma, and I do cherish the gift.
    All the same, I’d like the icing of the book in my hand with "Virginia McGee Butler" running down its spine!


Show, Don't Tell

Family gatherings seem to be equally about memories, eating, and building current relationships. My husband’s family gathered recently where my sister-in-law put on a spread that would have made our mother-in-law proud. One of the nieces brought up the eulogy I wrote and read at my mother-in-law’s funeral. Mama Butler, as she was known to family, lived by the writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” without having heard it. My eulogy went like this:

Mama Butler knew how to say, “I love you,” in a way that involved no words. Her sons and grandchildren heard and understood.
    She grew up in a silent generation that seldom spoke about feelings. Instead, she demonstrated. Her sons tasted her love daily as they grew up and again when they returned as adults.
    I married her youngest son and tried to improve her habits. When the family was coming for dinner, there would be fried chicken, ham, pot roast, purple-hull peas, butter beans, creamed corn (sliced thinly three times and scrapped off the cob), potato salad, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top from an unwritten recipe only she could duplicate, macaroni and cheese, Jell-O salad, rolls, cornbread, and at least two kinds of cake and always her chocolate pie which has never been reproduced.
    I tried to convince her that nobody could eat all that at one sitting. It was only necessary, I said, to fix one well-balanced meal with one kind of meat or main dish, a couple of vegetables, a salad, one bread, and a dessert. I suggested she’d enjoy her company more if she were not so tired. None of this was heeded.
    Noticing that her grandson Lance scraped the meringue off his pie and left the crust, I suggested that she make some chocolate pudding and save herself some trouble. “Lance likes chocolate pie,” she said.
    When I tried to improve her habits, she countered with the name of a son or grandchild who would surely starve if a particular favorite wasn’t on the table. I hadn’t seen the message in the food.
     I appealed to her fatigue, which would prevent her entering the lively discussions that followed the meal. She said, “I just enjoy listening and seeing people enjoy what I have cooked.” Finally, I gave up out of frustration, seeing that it was useless. I remained convinced that I was right. I have no idea why I thought I would make any changes in her behavior when the other three daughters-in-law had been unable to.
    Eventually, we moved and were the ones returning for the special occasions. I don’t remember when I realized that I, too, had succumbed to anticipating her meals. We’d arrive at the front door. Even before she answered our knock, I could see her coming out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, not a silver hair out of place in spite of the heat of the kitchen. The aroma preceded her. The mixture included my own favorites: purple-hull peas, creamed corn, fried chicken, and cornbread. I began to hear what she was saying in the kitchen.
    With the dinner on the table, she gave warnings about which things weren’t quite right this time.
    “The meringue didn’t rise quite high enough.”
    “These store eggs are not as good as when I used to have my own chickens.”
    “The corn is not as good as last year. I think the weather’s been too dry.”
    “The icing on the cake didn’t harden right. I think I should have cooked it a little longer.”
    We never found these flaws.
    I began to see her pleasure in watching her family enjoy the after dinner talking and teasing, punctuated with return trips to the kitchen for another piece of fried chicken, another glass of boiled custard, or another sliver of cake. A final round brought enough nourishment for the trip home.
    Mama Butler finally learned to say the words, “I love you,” – from her grandchildren, I think. But those who loved her still heard them best around her table.


Answering a Hard Question

These children tend to stutter when asked “Where are you from?” Children of military parents are from nowhere – and everywhere. Lovingly called “military brats,” they’ve been hard to find in a book until Kimberly Willis Holt came on the scene.

In his recent address to 1234 attendees at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Los Angeles, Bryan Collier talked about how important it was to see himself in The Snowy Day. As I listened, I remembered when book children lived in middle-class white families with a mother, father, one or two siblings, and a pet – or the problem was the lack of such a family and the resolution was finding one. Ezra Jack Keats broke a mold when Peter, his Snowy Day protagonist, was black – just a little boy doing what all children do in the snow.

After The Snowy Day, other authors have included children of other economic levels, races, and cultures in their books. Publishers today look for those stories. Besides all children's need  to find people like themselves in a book, I believe it’s also important for them to find those who are different – and to discover how much they are alike after all. Peter’s skin color may have been different for many children who read the book, but he loved the very same things they did when the white stuff began to fall.

Other ways children are different have nothing to do with ethnicity. Military children come in all varieties, one of the things I treasured about teaching in schools on or near military bases. But they have a culture all their own. They fit, sort of, with extended families they visit maybe once or twice a year. They fit, sort of, with the new community they may live in for six months, three years, or five if they are lucky. As a rule, they learn to adapt quickly to new homes and friends and have wonderful opportunities to experience the world. They also have unique challenges. I’ll not go into all of this because it’s told better in Kimberly’s books.

This week marks the release of Piper Reed, Forever Friend, the sixth in a series that follows the ups and downs of a Navy Brat. Kimberly Willis Holt writes from experience, her early memories including kindergarten in France and a stint in Guam with her Navy father. These books are for military children Kimberly [on the right] and me at the Children's Book Festivalwho can see themselves and say, “Yeah, just like me,” and for those who wonder what it would be like to live this nomadic life. Carey Hagan in the September/October 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine points out that these are books about a girl that a boy would read.

So if you’ve ever wondered what it was like to be in a military family or if you know a military child who needs to find himself or herself in a book, meet Piper Reed.


A Teacher Who Made a Difference to Me

As yellow school buses pass my house, I think about a question my favorite principal once asked me. “Who was a teacher who made a real difference for you at school?”

It didn’t take long for the name of Elizabeth Bounds to come to mind. She was an excellent English teacher, but the difference went far beyond class. She kept study hall in the teeny-tiny library of the teeny-tiny Abbeville High School. One day she handed me a book off the shelf. “Virginia Ann, this is a book you need to read.”

Now, she didn’t say this was a book a ninth-grader or a tenth-grader should read, but a book that I should read. I knew I had been singled out. I read that one and returned it to ask for another recommendation. She introduced me to A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, The Count of Monte Cristo, and many others – classics I read for pleasure. She made a difference most of all because she saw me as an individual and fed the reading and writing that would become my passions.

As this new school year begins, I am grateful for Elizabeth Bounds and teachers like her who see the individuals in their classrooms and challenge them to find and follow their passions.