A Purging of Pity and Fear by Marion Dane Bauer
It was a small town and an even smaller library. The children’s section formed an open cube, perhaps six feet on each side. But the small size didn’t matter to me, because every time my mother and I went to the library, I brought home the same book.
That book lives in me still, and I am 82.
I can’t recall the title. Or the author. Or even the details of the story. But I can see the cover. Pale blue with a fuzzy pink lamb cavorting across it.
The tips of my fingers remember that pink fuzz.
Mostly, though, I remember the loss at the story’s heart.
The fuzzy, pink lamb lost his mother, the moment of loss made more terrible by all color draining away at the turn of the page. The gray lamb stood alone at the top of a gray hill. Lightning flashed in a gray sky. Even the pettable pink fuzz vanished.
Again and again, I stroked the smooth gray lamb on the smooth gray page, grieving. The same grief I would experience many years later when King Lear thundered onto a stage carrying the dead Cordelia.
Even as I grieved my lamb’s lost mother, though, I knew I could choose, that soon I would choose, to turn the page. To bring her back. To bring back even his cheerful pink fuzz. And when I did, every single time I did, I experienced a truly Aristotelian purging of pity and fear.
Here’s another story about that same small-town library, that same book. The day came, both inevitable and entirely unexpected, when my mother and I climbed the musty stairs to the library over the city clerk’s office to find my beloved lamb book gone from the shelf. Some other child had dared take it home!
I had never dreamed such a tragedy possible. That was my book, my lamb, my purging.
My mother and the librarian stood over me, talking, talking. I can still feel their hovering presence, hear their murmuring voices telling me that another book would do.
It wouldn’t, of course.
Nonetheless, I left the library that day with a different book. Entirely unfamiliar. Small and square with an anonymously rebound cover. I can feel the shape and heft of it in my hands today.
Once home, I sat on the couch in our four-room mill house and waited impatiently for my mother to read the new book to me. She was busy doing mother things and my impatience grew.
Finally, reluctantly, I opened the unwanted book . . . and to my absolute astonishment began to read. The entire book. To myself.
I hadn’t realized until that moment that I could do such a thing!
I’d been “reading” my lamb book for a long time, but only because I had memorized every word. Where this new power, this power that opened new books, came from I had no idea.
More than three-quarters-of-a-century later, that memory still surprises me. Could I have possibly begun reading spontaneously?
That seems improbable.
More likely, when I brought the unfamiliar book home from the library I must have already been in first grade. In which case I didn’t recognize the thing I was doing in school as reading. At least I didn’t know I was reading books. Clearly, “Oh! Oh! Oh! Look! Look! Look! See Spot run!” had brought no purging of pity and fear.
Which speaks to the complexity of the leap from learning to decode words to discovering the joy and power of story.
For reasons I don’t fully understand even now, that lamb’s lost mother was a touchstone for me. And has remained one. In that loss I discovered the core of nearly every story I would ever write.
My stories don’t require a lost mother, but for a story to come to life for me, I must begin with loss. It is loss that brings me—and my readers if they are ones I have the capacity to touch—to that vital purging of pity and fear.
Occasionally, though, after all these many years and many stories, I can’t resist trying a whole different approach. Just for variety. Just for fun.
That’s what happened with Sunshine, my latest novel. My idea began with a boy and an imaginary dog. Just that. A boy who didn’t only hold his dog in his mind but took his pretending to the level of stroking her, interacting with her.
What fun this will be! I thought. I’ll play with readers’ minds. I’ll make Sunshine so real on the page that they’ll believe in her, too, even when they know she’s not real.
Soon after sailing into my story, however, I discovered what I could have told any writing student: a boy with an imaginary dog isn’t a story. It’s a situation. Story requires struggle, and mine had none. But before I could decide what the struggle might be, I had to answer an important question. Why would a boy well past the imaginary-friend stage be hanging around with a pretend dog?
Guess what I came up with.
A mother who abandoned him when he was three. An imaginary dog to fill the hole she left behind. A dog that stayed because the mother never returned.
What other answer could there be?
We grow and change, readers and writers alike, but we never leave our true selves behind.
So next month Sunshine will arrive in the world, imaginary dog and lost mother intact. There will be no mention of a fuzzy, pink lamb on a pale blue cover, but that lamb will be there.
And if my story reaches its best readers, a purging of pity and fear is sure to follow.
Marion Dane Bauer is the author of more than one-hundred books ranging from board books and picture books to early readers and middle-grade and young-adult novels. Her novel, On My Honor, received a Newbery Honor Award. She was also the editor of and a contributor to the ground-breaking collection of short stories, Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, and one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She no longer limits herself to the same book or even a single book when she goes to the library. More information about Marion’s books is available at http://www.mariondanebauer.com.