Being Seen by Emmy Kastner
On Being a Kid
I was a kid prone to exaggeration. Conveying what really happened often felt boring. I wasn’t lying to get myself out of trouble, just stretching the truth because that’s what made people laugh or would pique their interest to ask me questions. A snake followed me all the way home from the bus stop. No, I wasn’t scared. She was just feeling lonely and wanted to see what our house looked like …
In the middle of the the woods in Michigan, with no neighbors my age nearby, it was easy to slip away and write stories, making up worlds where wild things would happen in the midst of an ordinary humdrum life. I was a kid with a lot of questions, and would make up answers when I didn’t have the resources readily available to find real answers. I would follow my parents and teachers around regaling them with my stories and what-if’s, always encouraged with the same joyful, “Go write it down!” (Their motivation most likely a tie between encouraging my interest and getting out of hearing about another story about a friendly snake in the house.) I started writing my stories down. I would carry folders filled with pages and illustrations (I coveted my dad’s briefcase), and begged my parents for a typewriter.
I wanted to engage with the world. Storytelling was foundational for me, even as a young person. Especially as a young person. With a manuscript for a story about my teddy bear who came to life at night under my arm or a story about the ocean I wrote two copies of (one to send Jacques Cousteau and the other to National Geographic), I would tell everyone, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a writer.”
On a Kid Being Seen
It must have been 5th grade. My mom is a paraprofessional, at that time she was working at an elementary school. The night before, she surprised me with an adventure the next day that would mean I could skip school (very cool, even for someone who loved school), would go to work with her (incredibly exciting for a kid eagerly anticipating life as a grown up) because a real author who I loved was doing a school visit there (I was going to meet Jon Scieszka).
It was forever ago and memory is strange. Some details are fuzzy but there are pieces of this day that I’ve carried from this encounter that are powerfully clear 26 years later. I remember having to let the kids who actually went to the school get their books signed first, which was a crime because I was obviously the MOST excited for his visit. “Y’know, he’s more likely to remember the last person in line than the first.” I’m not sure if there’s scientific data to support my mom’s claim, but it made sense to me. So there I stood as the signing line achor, nervous to meet him, practicing what I was going to say to him as I fidgeted in line with his books, the first two in the Time Warp Trio: The Not-So-Jolly Roger and Knights of the Kitchen Table. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a writer like you … When I grow up I’m going to be a writer like you … When I grow up, I’m going to be a writer like you.”
Eventually I got to the table. I don’t remember exactly how the beginning of the conversation went, but knowing myself well enough and remembering a few key moments, I imagine the beginning of the conversation went something like this:
Me: When I grow up I’m going to be a writer like you.
JS: Wow, that’s great, most writers have names. Do you?
Me: My whole name is Emily Anne Hallman. And I think you have to put my sister’s name on the books too. Her name is Elanor and everyone always puts her name first.
JS: Good to know.
Me (nervously rambling as he’s signing them): I love your books and I’m so happy to meet you. Your books make me laugh, you’re really funny. I think I’ve read them all … but not these. I haven’t read them yet because they’re right here and I’m just getting them now, but I will read them and I know I will like them. And I LOVE these drawings. I like to draw too. I want to make the pictures for my books too. That’s the illustrator. You said that in your presentation. Lane Smith did a very good job. Did I say I want to be a writer when I grow up?
(Now here’s where the memory’s clarity really dials in. This is the part I’ve carried with me.)
JS: Do you write stories now?
Me: Yes I do. All the time. I use an electric typewriter. (I probably explained to him how electric typewriters work.) And I want a briefcase, but my dad said he needs his for work so I can’t have his.
JS (putting his pen down and making deliberate eye contact): Sounds like you’re already a writer. That’s not something you have to wait for. You’re a writer. I’m happy to meet you. I look forward to reading your books some day.
As I walked away from the line beaming, a wave of excitement ran through me, I looked at what he wrote. In one of them, “To Ladies Emily and Elanor!” My name was first. I looked up and he was standing up in conversation with someone. I ran closer, waving from a distance. Catching his attention I mouthed “Thank you,” and he smiled again and waved.
I met a writer, a writer with books that I’ve read and love.
He listened to me.
He said I’m a writer.
He’s excited to read my books.
Inspired, I went home and wrote Don’t Blame it On Me!, a retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears told from the perspective of Goldilocks that was later published in a collection of work for my 5th grade class appropriately titled My Published Work. (I still have this, and it makes me laugh. The collection also includes some experimental poetry, an autobiography, a historical piece about Harry Truman told from the perspective of his wife, a story about me stepping on a tent stake, another about not wanting to clean my bird’s cage, and more … I’m considering dusting this collection off and shopping this one around.)
Being an Adult Who was a Kid who was Seen by Someone she Saw
Heading to college, moving around from dorms to apartments, launching into my teaching career, moving to the west coast with my boyfriend then years later moving back to Michigan with my husband (happens to be the same person), starting a writing center, having kids, and now writing and illustrating books professionally … I’ve literally carried those books Jon Scieszka signed that day with me with every move I’ve made. They now live on the bookshelf of my nearly 10-year-old son. The books are great, but it’s always been more about what they represent. I couldn’t get rid of them and I didn’t want to leave them behind. They remained in the mix of the Most Special, alongside things like a pencil sharpener my dad gifted me in middle school from a real art store, and a mix CD a friend made for me in college even though I don’t think I have a CD player anymore. Those books represent a time when I was dreaming big, and someone saw me and my dreams and told me I didn’t have to wait. I was doing it. I needed to hear that so many times in my life. I still do.
Last year my first book announcement for the Nerdy Babies series was published in Publisher’s Weekly, an exciting time to share book news publicly. Making books professionally was a new exciting facet in my life as a writer/illustrator, and I was giddy as I scrolled through. I squealed when I saw my name and photo, then scrolled through to see the rest of the announcements … JON SCIESZKA HAD A BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT THAT VERY SAME DAY. What a beautiful coincidence. I don’t know him, but I had the urge to call him like an old friend and celebrate.
There is power in being seen by others. There is power in how you see others. You know this, sure, but let’s keep reminding one another.
Are you writing? You’re a writer.
And for the record, I still don’t have a briefcase, though I think I’d still like one.
Emmy Kastner taught high school English in Battle Creek, MI, and high school science in San Francsico, CA, is the co-founder and former executive director of RAWK (a literacy-based nonprofit writing center seeking to celebrate and amplify youth voices in Kalamazoo, MI), and a member of the Nerdy Book Club since 2017. Her first books in the NERDY BABIES series, NERDY BABIES: OCEAN and NERDY BABIES: SPACE will be published on May 7, 2019 with Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan.