Whose Words Are Those? by Deborah Freedman
While we were away, Celeste and I were engaged to be married.
I told you once, I told you twice, it’s Harry! It’s Harry! It’s Harry! He was a BAD HAT.
Whose words are those?
My “nightie” from childhood frayed to nothing long ago, and Lionie, my misfit of a stuffed lion with his back legs sewn on backwards, is too fragile to be hugged anymore. And what about those mangled, mashed-up words? Comfort objects, all.
A smiling steam shovel, a sad little house, a mountainside covered with hamburger plants. A snowball melting in a red pocket. Whose images are those?
And whose book is this? Evidently, back in 1960-whatever, I knew it was MINE.
I’ve been told that Sendak and Krauss’s “First Book of First Definitions” were with me at college, along with my Webster’s, freshman year. I don’t recall bringing it; this memory belongs to my true friend (and good writer), Lily, who didn’t seem at all surprised when I started writing for children after my own were born, and kindly, supportively, read my over-thought and under-developed drivel until eventually some of it passed as a book and was published. But I doubt that 18-year-old Lily could have predicted that twenty-five years after graduation I would be worrying — about reviews and sales, and on my way one day driving an hour through traffic and pouring rain on I95, nervous, cranky, and convinced that no one would show up to my first-ever library visit.
Because who could possibly show up for a completely unknown, debut author? Well, actually —surprise! — a good number of children and caregivers did appear. Largely, I’m sure, because of the rain and for the promise of an art project and after-school snacks. The children seemed to know the routine: a juice box and some goldfish, and then it was time to choose a carpet square and gather around the rocking chair for a story.
Now you Nerdy Book Club members, hangers-on, and lurkers likely all have more experience with read-aloud time than I do, so you know this —that it becomes obvious pretty quickly whether or not your listeners like a book or not. Do the squirms and fidgets stop? Does the room suddenly get quiet, except for a few questions, laughs, gasps? When a book doesn’t work, it’s frustrating for any reader, and (trust me on this) painful for an author. But when it does work — when my listeners’ eyes get huge with worry about the fate of the characters I’ve deliberately tortured, and then there are cheers when everything, of course, turns out all right — it’s completely MAGICAL.
I write this post as a break from the slow slog of working on my next book, from struggling to get its story of pictures and 300ish words to that place — where it looks completely inevitable, easy, like it surely was written in just one day. Sometimes, it helps me to read aloud to my stuffed animals, a judgmental bunch if there ever was one, and gauge their responses. But when I’m really stuck, I like to transport myself back to that first storytime, when I was surrounded by carpet squares with real children on top. I asked everyone that day, “Does anyone here like to draw?” and then I told them about my daughters, Emma and Lucie, who loved to draw and make up stories when they were little, and how they were the inspiration for my book Scribble. And I told them about my cat, Milo, who is on almost every page in the illustrations. But during all this chitchat, two small children, a brother and a sister, were practically sitting on my feet and were clearly anxious for me to start the book already. So I took their cue and began. Then, while I read, something I quite didn’t expect happened — those two pre-literate children were not only earnestly listening to the story, but they were also soundlessly saying its words along with me. My story! And they continued to do this… all the way to “The End.”
So then, whose story was Scribble, about two sisters and a scribble-kitty and a princess? Whose words? Whose pictures?
And why was I so surprised that my book belonged to these two children?
I write a book aware that some will like it, and some won’t. A few will say, “Read it again!” but most would probably rather move along, hopefully to another book. And yet, I always hold out for the possibility that some day one child will love it enough to read it until she knows it by heart. Maybe she will even write her name on the cover, and take it with her to college. Perhaps years and years later she won’t even remember doing any of that — but she will remember how much she loved books, and she will still love books, and her favorites will be part of her and their words will be hers.
Kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk, and the snow fell PLOP! on top of Peter’s head.
A book is to look at.
Indeed, I CARE.
Deborah Freedman is the author and illustrator of Scribble and Blue Chicken. The Story of Fish and Snail is her newest picturebook from Viking, about best friends and books. She is busy at work on her next, featuring a mouse, a frog, and a mess.