The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Wowee for the Kerlan!


Lanie came to the Kerlan award ceremony, thanks to this young reader.  What a chance to have a big WOWEE moment with a whole bunch of great people–precious friends, children’s book writers and illustrators, librarians, teachers, Ethiopians, adoptive parents, even one of my roommates from boarding school in Addis Ababa.  The Kerlan saves manuscripts and correspondence and scribbles and sketches that show how writers and illustrators do their art–and people come to study in the limestone caves–and it’s all as classy and fabulous as can be.

When Toni Buzzeo and I were doing presentations at CCIRA in Denver earlier this year, we hung out with a strong and feisty bunch of librarians and teachers–then and yesterday, it made my heart sing to know how many powerful ambassadors for children’s books are still hanging tough and not going gentle into that good night.  Minneapolis apparently is the #1 city for literacy.  The passion for reading and writing clearly flows down the rivers and seeps into the soil.

I grew up in a land of stories, and I wanted to celebrate the power of words and images with that group of story makers and readers.  An adoptive dad gave me permission to share a true story with the group about his son, who is nervous about babysitters because he’s afraid Mommy and Daddy won’t come home.  His older sister “is often a helpful translator in speaking to a 3-year-old mind. ‘Mo, they’re our FOREVER Mommy and Daddy.  That means even if you try to get them off you, you can’t.  No matter how hard you try to get away, they’ll just be stuck there.'”

Ah, the way a story can be an arrow to the heart.  My dad went out with mule drivers who sat around the fire and told stories most of the night.  Some of those stories, he passed along to us.  We listened with intensity–as does my granddaughter now.  (I recently re-told the story of Rapunzel, with its somewhatscary opening, the husband who sneaks into a witch’s garden and steals rapunzel for his pregnant wife and thus has to turn over his daughter to be raised by the witch.  When my granddaughter couldn’t resist a neighbor’s rose, I said, “Uh-oh…like the Rapunzel story.”  She looked at me wide-eyed and said, “I have to give up my babies?”) 

Stories helped me make sense of a fascinating but often off-balance life, a life of longings and belonging and not belonging.  It often felt as if my sisters and brother were the only ones clinging to the boat with me, all of us swirling downstream on a wild, tossing, heart-stopping ride.  Since our mom was teaching us at home, we had plenty of time to make up stories and make ourselves into the hapless adventurers in them.

After our oldest sister went off to boarding school, my sister Joy and I continued to make up and act out stories for long days at a time.  In most of our stories, that year, we were the twins Lilly and Tilly.  Joy has lived most of her adult life in Minneapolis, and it was a shiny moment for me that she was able to bring kids and daughters-in-law, and old friends to the Kerlan talk.  (In this picture, Joy and I are the parenthesis.) 

Not every story needs to be written down…that’s for sure.  I love sharing stories through telling, just like my dad did.  But I’m oh so lucky that my mom did write.

I’m lucky that she modeled sitting herself down and getting the writing done.

I’m lucky that she shared her passion for just the right word with all of us.

I’m lucky that I had a high school English teacher at boarding school who had a great belly laugh for every time someone took a risk with writing.

I don’t know Oprah, and I don’t know anybody else who does, but I do know the power that comes from writers and tellers and teachers and librarians and bookstore owners and managers and editors and parents and others who use stories to help make and keep us strong and true.

May all those who gathered to celebrate the Kerlan award with me stay stuck to reading and stories and the power of pencils and books.

(Thanks for the picture, Minnesotan and adoptive dad, Jon Fleck.)

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