Mapping a Reader’s Life by Stacy DeKeyser
I became a reader because of a spider, a pig, and a man I’d never met named Elwin Brooks White.
It’s one of the most enduring memories of my childhood: My twin sister and I, snuggled one on either side of our mom as we read Charlotte’s Web together. Near the end of the book (at the part where Charlotte dies), because I was too old to get emotional over something as silly as a made-up story about an imaginary bug, I excused myself, walked casually to the only room in the house where I could be sure of privacy—the bathroom—I locked the door, and I cried.
I was eight years old. I hadn’t seen it coming.
That day, I learned the awesome power of the written word. And I have never forgotten it. I can trace my childhood and adolescence with a list of book titles:
The Poky Little Puppy
Horton Hatches the Egg
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Island of the Blue Dolphins
The Andromeda Strain
Even now, this list stirs up emotions, memories, and sensory images: A cozy sitting room beneath the floorboards. A wistful desire to eat at an Automat. Vague, unfounded fears of being alone; of mutating germs; of the vampire next door. I became convinced that if there was such a thing as magic, it was contained between the covers of books.
When I was 14, I read All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott, and I was transported to the pre-war English countryside. I was with that country veterinarian, rattling through a barren winter landscape to a remote farm on a heathered moor. I felt the wind bite my face. I smelled the cows in the steamy barn and heard their lowing. I felt the stone floor under my knees, and the icy shock of the washbucket water on my bare arms. I actually shivered.
I had never even heard of Yorkshire, much less been there. I had never lived in the 1930s. But as I read that book, I was there. In another place. Another time.
Many years later, when I had kids of my own, we took our first trip abroad. Go ahead and guess the first place we visited.
All because of a book—that book that made me shiver when I was 14 years old.
The same family vacation that began in Yorkshire was supposed to end in Rome. But as the summer temperatures soared, we took a sharp left turn and aimed for the mountains instead.
We found ourselves in the village of Castelrotto, in the Italian Alps. It was a storybook place: Half-timbered houses with steep roofs and bright red geraniums spilling from window boxes. Men wearing lederhosen, and feathers in their caps. Women in dirndls, with braids wrapped around their heads. Any minute, I expected three bears to go lumbering down the street after Goldilocks.
This storybook village sat in the shadow of a foreboding mountain. No matter where you are in the village, the mountain looms, black and cold. It’s known as Sciliar in Italian. In German, it’s called Der Schlern. (Neither name has an English translation, as far as I know.) Local legend says a witch lives under the mountain. Once you see that mountain, you can understand why.
I wanted to write my own story about an Alpine witch. It took ten years, and lots of false starts, but eventually the Schlern Witch became the Brixen Witch. Castelrotto was rechristened Brixen, and I have adapted that little witch’s story in two books of my own.
Books, and my reading life, had steered me toward her story, and so it’s only fitting that she, in turn, steered me toward the books I needed to write.
The British fantasy author Jonathan Stroud says:
All writing is, at heart, a response to other stories—to ones that you’ve been told. It’s a desire to fill in the gaps they’ve left, to add your voice to the long, unbroken chain of tales stretching back into the dark. Above all, it’s about recreating the magic: you’re looking to ensnare other people the way that you were ensnared.
One evening, not too long ago, I snuggled my own children close, one on either side of me, and we read Charlotte’s Web.
I figured that this time I’d be OK. This time, I knew what was coming.
But at the end, I cried.
And this time, I didn’t care who saw me.
Stacy DeKeyser is the author of five books for kids, including One Witch at a Time and The Brixen Witch (S&S/McElderry). Her books have been listed among the Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best, the Bank Street/CBC Best Books of the Year; an Amazon Editors’ Pick, a Kirkus New and Notable Book for Children; and on state award lists in Utah, Missouri, and South Dakota. You can find her in the woods of Connecticut, or at stacydekeyser.com.