When I was a sophomore in college, I wrote an article for the school paper about massage. Always the schemer, I'd worked out a plan by which I would receive five free massages and write about them for the entertainment section, which I edited.
My lede in this utterly shameless enterprise referred to Dante's DIVINE COMEDY, speficially, the opening lines of the INFERNO. In the poem, the character finds himself at the halfway point of his life, wandering in a gloomy wood. And there I was! Halfway through my college journey! On a wooden massage table! In a gloomy room!
As with many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
It's funny the way good writing never leaves us, which is a very good reason to write children's books. If it's true that the books we read and love become part of us, it's even more that way with the things we read when we are young.
Probably not coincidentally, my novel DEVINE INTERVENTION has more than a few references to Dante, from the title to the structure of hell itself. And then there's that bit about lost souls being redeemed by love. Dante had his Beatrice, but because she'd already been well used by Lemony Snicket, I created Jerome.
All of this, of course, is a very long way of saying thanks to the one and only Lin Oliver, who co-founded the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, without which I would not be a published children's author.
I saw Lin last night at University Bookstore in Seattle. She and Henry Winkler, the co-author of the HANK ZIPZER series, were in town to launch a prequel for younger readers.
From where I sit, midway in my own life's journey, I can't overstate the importance of Lin or these books in my life. When my beloved daughter Lucy was in second grade, struggling in all sorts of ways in school, we'd planned a road trip. Getting away on weekends was hugely important then, because there was no getting away from a mountain of sadness during the week.
I stopped by the library for an audio book and found a couple of the Hank Zipzer ones. The kids laughed themselves silly listening to Henry Winkler read about an iguana that had wandered into a pair of boxer shorts. And they listened to the story again and again. It was only afterward that Lucy mentioned how much she identified with the narrator, a boy who struggled to read.
At first, I thought she was just monologuing from the book. Lucy can memorize almost anything she's heard instantly, and she's a really good actress. Also, I was in denial that the thing that gave me the greatest security in the world--reading and writing--was something my daughter struggled to do. After all, she was reading in kindergarten, and even though it took us a huge effort over many years to make that happen, she'd done it. (Or so I thought. She was faking much of it, making great contextual guesses.)
Still, by the end of the school year, I was ready to have her tested. Given how much time she spent with books, reading them was far more difficult than it should have been. Writing was nearly impossible for her even though she was a really bright kid.
The whole prospect terrified me. My entire sense of security in the world came from my ability to read and write. To know my daughter couldn't rely on that felt like sending her out in the world not only without armor, but without skin. For someone like me, already prone to anxiety, every day felt like a potential disaster.
Two years passed this way. School still wasn't working for her, so we had her tested again, because we figured the more we knew about how her brain worked, the more we could help her learn.
I'm not going into all of the details here, but let's just say things were hard enough for us that I took both kids out of school. I also pulled up stakes on my freelancing career. We even left Seattle for months at a time.
Anything was better than keeping my daughter in a place that wasn't right for her academically or socially, to say the least. (I learned later that it's common for kids with dyslexia to be mocked and excluded by their peers. I have no words for the rage this gives me on behalf of Lucy and other kids like her, but on the positive side, I feel a special kinship for parents of kids with any sort of disability. For many of these kids, school is the heart of darkness they enter every day. They're as brave as f*ck for hanging in there, and their families deserve love and support.)
This whole painful and necessary process started because of a book that made my daughter laugh herself silly--and then made her think. That is the magic and power of books. We see ourselves in them and we know we are not alone. We also learn we have choices. We can change directions and create a better life.
Even so, it's scary when you do something like this, entirely reinvent your life when there is no clear path going forward and no guarantees things will turn out OK. It's also incredibly tough to be both a teacher and a mom, especially when you have no experience working with a handful of complex learning challenges.
But in the many nights I lay awake during this time, I kept thinking about Hank Zipzer and Henry Winkler, who also is dyslexic and despite this, managed to go to Yale, become Fonzie, be a producer and director, and co-author with Lin of two dozen novels. So even if my own daughter wasn't going to be able to walk the same path I did, there would be a way for her to have a happy, productive, and successful life.
Henry and Lin and their books helped guide us toward a new destination.
And, after a rough year in the trenches with me and her sister, we found a new school for Lucy, one that specializes in teaching kids with dyslexia and language-related learning disabilities.
As with all good stories, the ending of this one touched back on the beginning. Lucy interviewed for this school over Skype when we were in Los Angeles for an SCBWI conference run by none other than Lin Oliver. The school offered Lucy admission on the spot and I felt a two-ton weight I hadn't even remembered I was carrying fly off my heart.
Even though middle school traditionally stinks, my girl is incredibly happy there. She dashes out the door in the morning on the way to school, and she's learned so much about how to learn that she feels ready to go to our neighborhood high school, even without a guarantee of support. At least for now, things are OK. Better than OK.
And they're that way for me, too. Giving up the freelancing that had sustained me from the time Lucy was an infant made room for me to do other writing. Thanks to Lin and Steve and Sara and Kim and all the other good people at the SCBWI, I've sold five books for young readers.
Three are out: DEVINE INTERVENTION, FINDING BIGFOOT, and THE DINOSAUR TOOTH FAIRY. Two more are coming: THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH, and LOVE, SANTA.
And I have more in the works.
And so, at what is probably the midpoint of my own life, I find myself in a wood that isn't gloomy at all. It's as sunny as these places can be, full of meandering and wonder and beauty and fellow travelers. Thank you, Lin, for lighting the way.