Summer 2020. What will we say about all this one day?
When the pandemic first hit, I was asked by School Library Journal to join other writers in explaining how I was dealing with the sudden changes to writing life. You can read the piece here.
When I reread it this morning, I was struck by how quiet and contemplative all of us seemed compared to how things went after we all witnessed George Floyd’s murder – and Breonna Taylor’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s and Rayshard Brooks’, all in the span of a few weeks. I would love to feel calm, but the truth is, that everything is boiling over. Here in Richmond, where I live, we’re dealing with the long-standing disconnect between the police and black communities, and, of course, with the overdue push to remove our city’s racist iconography, the most of any other city in the US. And, of course, at the heart of it all, are the searing conversations that have to be had right now about dismantling all the systems that have been allowed to erase, injure and oppress generations of black people in this city and throughout the country. Lots of reading lists are being shared for classrooms and libraries. I’d like to add one suggestion. Try The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love, and Truth, edited by Wade and Cheryl Hudson and due out next month. It features a long list of some of your favorite names in children’s and teens literature and spans a range of experiences and truths. (My story is called “Hablar.”) You can pre-order your copy here.
The SLJ article sparked another thought for me, too. It reminded me that writing is an unexpected business, and one where nothing is ever truly wasted, just as in life.
I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I keep in my computer’s graveyard. These are attempts at book projects that I just couldn’t untangle, no matter how hard I tried. Over time, I’ve stopped thinking of these as failures. Instead, I find that I sometimes go back and steal good ideas from myself so I can repurpose them. Sometimes, I take back something as small as a character’s name. Piddy Sanchez, for example, was originally the name of a character in a failed MG novel manuscript that will never see the light of day. Piddy eventually became the heroine of my YA novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. The point is that what I believe is a failure or a work too ugly to look at, often offers me gifts in the end. All it needs is a better home someplace else.
Which brings me to the story that I have published in this quarter’s Kazoo magazine. Kazoo is a fabulous, hard-copy publication that’s all about girls, ages 5 – 12 or so. Check out this adorable video.
The story I submitted is called “Maribel Estrella,” about a girl who dreams about exploring the high seas even though the world is a very dangerous place.
My editor at Kazoo, Erin Bried, was delighted with it, saying it was “a beautiful story full of hope and courage.”
But here’s the origin tale. Maribel had been inside me for a decade. I first wrote “Maribel” as a picture book manuscript somewhere around 2010. Since then, I’ve re-written those few pages endlessly, picking at it like a vulture at a carcass some days. I could never make it work as a picture book, but that’s only because it never was one. It was really waiting to be a short story for slightly older readers.
When Erin first asked me to submit something for a “summer adventure-themed” magazine issue for that age group, I opened my Maribel file, wondering if there was anything there to work with. And sure enough, when I shifted my lens, I could see that Maribel was just the right piece. My character had finally found the perfect boat to sail out of her cove. We edited, of course, mostly because we had to accommodate the fact that kids are going to be having a lot of home adventures this summer. But in the end, I felt at peace knowing that all my effort, all those frustrating days, were not wasted time. They were just an exercise in patience and perspective.
So, I’m turning some of that thinking to our situation right now. We’re in the middle of truly painful shared experiences as a country. We’re at a crossroads, shouting and marching and aching to find a way forward together from a place of respect and understanding. We’re afraid and wondering if we will have the collective will to turn emotion into action and change – or whether justice will elude us again.
I have no answers. But here is what I do know. We are here together as witnesses. For writers of kid lit in particular, I know that none of these experiences will evaporate, not the horrible ones and not the moments of grace and hope that will emerge, too. Instead, they will be shelved inside us for a while until they become powerful art. Maybe some of that art will even come from creatives who are kids right now, their eyes and hearts wide open. They’ll expose what it has been like to live through this moment. They’ll help make a compass for what follows.
So yes, these are hard times to write, but we do it anyway. Nothing is ever wasted, not even our most painful day.