This Is a Story About Paper by Tracey Baptiste
This is a story about paper. Which is boring. Unless you draw something on it. Or fold it. Or crumple it up and throw it at your brother. It’s a story about how paper changes depending on the thing you put on it, or how much of it you have. Or how much time you have to use it.
There was a lot of paper in my house when I was growing up. Both my parents worked in offices with notebooks and pencils and black, blue, and red pens. The notebooks were sometimes yellow with lines, which were good for keeping letters straight. Or they were white with grids, which were good for drawing things like princesses and cats and mermaids. Or they were blank, which were great for making mazes that were so complicated that once you got in, you probably could not find your way back out.
Both of my parents brought home office supplies for my brother and me to use as we wished. My brother mostly used his paper to draw. He was good at it. I was less good, but equally enthusiastic. Plus, I would write stories. Most of my play involved some kind of writing. If you were setting up a new game, you needed to write down the rules. If you were making a board game, you had to draw the playing field. You needed paper to draw up contracts about who owed who how many noogies, and when said noogies would be doled out. Paper checkout library slips ensured that my friends would return my books on time or suffer the 10 cent fine. Then there were paper hats, paper boats, paper dolls with paper purses, and let’s not forget, fortune tellers where paper would let you know which of the eight-year-old boys nearby you were destined to grow up and marry.
Paper was kind of important to me.
So it was with some confusion that one day at my grandmother’s while I was playing a game with my cousins, I discovered that there was no paper in the house. How were we going to proceed? I tore the place up looking for a scrap that I could use while my cousins watched in amusement, wonder, or worry (regarding how soon I would get into trouble). I did eventually find something to write on, but it was the back of another thing, which I, as a paper purist, found maddening. At the end of the day when my mother picked me up, I relayed this scandalous occurrence to her.
They did not have paper, I said.
Not everyone has paper, she told me.
She told me the story of a boy whose parents could barely afford to send him to school, who wrote on and in between the lines of all of his notebooks just to conserve paper. He did not let even an inch of space go to waste. He got every scholarship there was to UWI (University of the West Indies) and had his name all over the newspapers. She told me about children who didn’t have books at home to read and sometimes didn’t have someone to take them to the library.
I wondered how they played games, how they invented things, how they imagined worlds with no books and no paper at their disposal. Because for me, imagination came part and parcel with clean sheets of paper. What else would you use to make the princess’s pointy hat, or write down the magical potion ingredients before you sent your youngest cousin trekking out in the woods behind the house to find them?
But in school, paper could be dangerous. Paper might show that you were telling stories instead of following the order of operations in math, or using the right measurements in chemistry, or writing an analysis of the themes in Miguel Street. So I learned to speak my stories instead. I would speak them so that people would lean in and listen, and I learned to control the angle of their bodies by how low I whispered. There was no paper, no evidence.
And then one day, my father brought home reams of white paper and an electric typewriter. The typewriter hummed. It smelled of ink and air-conditioning. It gave off a sharp report every time you pressed one of the keys. It was literally the best thing I had ever seen. But it was off limits. The cartridge that held the ink that pressed black letters onto the smooth page was expensive. I was not to use it. I was absolutely never to touch it. But I was also now twelve. And came home from school alone. And had an entire hour in the house before anyone else got there because my mother was still at work, my brother had field hockey practice, or soccer (football) practice, or kissing girls practice, and my father worked an hour away by car.
And paper was made to be used. Some people did not have paper. I could not, in good conscience, just leave it to sit there.
The sheets of white paper tugged at my imagination. I turned on the typewriter and listened to it hum. I sniffed the sharp scent of I-Have-A-Story-To-Tell. Then I sat down. And I pressed one key. And another. And every day for one hour after school, I pressed those keys until I had a book. And then I needed a cover for the book. So I pressed more keys and made them into a design that went all across and down another sheet of paper. And then I read it. And I thought it was pretty good. So I took it to school to show to my best friend.
I forgot about the evidence.
I think a teacher ratted me out. Then my father discovered the missing paper. He popped out the nearly-spent ink cartridge. He READ MY BOOK. Evidence everywhere.
He wasn’t that mad. And I still had an hour after school every day. So… I started writing another story. And another.
And I never stopped.
Tracey Baptiste was born in Trinidad, where she grew up on jumbie stories and fairy tales, and decided to be a writer at the wise old age of three. It took a few more years to get her first publishing contract though. Her debut, a young adult novel titled Angel’s Grace, was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by New York City librarians. Tracey is a former teacher, textbook editor, ballerina, and amateur librarian who once started up a library in her house in the hope that everyone would bring their books back late and she would be rich! You know, like other librarians. She is now a wife and mom and lives in New Jersey, where she writes and edits books for kids from a very cozy office in her house that is filled with more toys than she can count. The Jumbies is her second novel.