The Beauty of Mud (and Books) by Emma Ledbetter
At my fifth birthday party, there was a hole in the backyard.
A really, really big, muddy hole. I distinctly remember my parents having to navigate all my little friends around it, keeping curious five-year-olds in party hats from peering too far into the abyss that would become our living room. It’s my first clear memory of our new house—and of seeing something so raw and below-the-surface as this house’s renovation. It was a little scary, and even more fascinating.
This is also the age at which I remember my picture books inspiring me to explore things like mud, and dirt, and backyard holes. Books like A Hole is to Dig, or A Tree is Nice, or Mud Pies and Other Recipes, which kept me entertained for hours making doll hors d’oeuvres out of grass, gravel and pine needles. I was a pretty tidy kid, but I respected what mud was good for: making bricks; cushioning the foundation of our house; simmering into a nice soup for squirrels with refined palettes.
Fast forward 20-some years and I’m home again, sitting in my parents’ living room, which was once that big hole in the backyard. I’m now a children’s book editor, and my mom, Deborah Freedman, is a published author-illustrator. We have no particular plans to collaborate, but when I ask her what she’s working on these days, she shows me the roughest, tiniest, most delicate sketches of a house. “This door was once a colossal oak tree….”
Immediately, I know that This House, Once is a book I have to help bring into the world. It’s dreamy, contemplative, and cozy. It takes apart this house, piece by piece, and sources the trees, the stones, the mud, the beautiful natural elements that have contributed to its being. It takes me right back to my five-year-old self, eyeing that hole from a safe distance, filling cupcake tins with dirt and minced flower petals. And it perfectly reflects my mission as an editor, which is to publish books that encourage kids to be curious, ask questions, and think about something as simple as the mud that made the bricks that made their home.
Because to me, that’s what many of the most memorable children’s books have in common: they inspire wonder. As adults, we know that the natural world is precarious and precious. We worry; we form strong opinions; hopefully, we act. But kids are different—they’re open-minded and inquisitive. They’re awe-struck by backyard holes; they deeply, intrinsically appreciate the value and the beauty of mud. They’re change-makers of the future, but right now, the most important thing they can do is wonder. If a kid can pick up a book and feel curiosity, awe, and respect for our world, we’ve done our jobs.
Emma Ledbetter is an editor at Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. You can follow her on Twitter @brdnjamforemma, or check out some of the books she’s edited here.
This House, Once, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, will be available wherever books are sold on February 28, 2017.