Norma Fox Mazer and I were good friends. We taught together at Vermont College of Fine Arts back when our MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA was very new, when it was the only program of its kind. And I still remember the time when Norma stopped me in the hall of our ancient stone dormitory and said, “You realize we’re grooming our own replacements.”
I laughed. We both laughed. But, of course, it was true. By passing on the skills we had gathered over so many years we were making certain that those coming up behind us would have the acuity required to step over us one day.
Now Norma who, along with her husband, Harry, practically created the young-adult field, is gone, but that truth she and I once laughed over continues to play out all around me every day.
I saw it again last month when I attended the Minnesota Book Awards ceremony.
My verse novel, Little Cat’s Luck, was one of four books selected in the middle grade category. I attended the ceremony with no expectation of my lucky little cat’s winning, and she didn’t. However, the amazing non-fiction book I was certain would be chosen over mine, Sachiko by Caren Stelson, didn’t win, either. Instead, a beautifully written fantasy, The Secret of Dreadwillow Curse by Brian Farrey took the award.
(If you want evidence of the idiosyncratic nature of any kind of awards selection process, you have only to note that the 2017 Newbery Award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, is also by a Minnesota writer, Kelly Barnhill, and that book didn’t make the list of four. But that’s another topic entirely.)
I had gathered a group of friends to attend with me, not needing an expectation of winning to enjoy the elaborate evening orchestrated by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. I invited my friends and I showed up prepared for the great pleasure of spending an entire evening celebrating Minnesota writers. But when I got there something more awaited me.
I found to my delight that I was sitting at the autograph table next to Abby Cooper, a young woman with whom I have a unique connection. A couple of years ago Abby sent me an e-mail saying, “You may not remember me, but when I was in the fifth grade, you spoke at a young-authors’ conference that I attended.” And, I’ll admit it, I laughed. Not derisively, but quite spontaneously. There had been so many young-authors’ conferences, so many fifth graders. No, I did not remember Abby.
Credit: David Cooper
But then she went on to tell me that she had approached me at the end of my session to ask if she could send me a story she was working on. I gave her my address, received her story, and responded with a critique. For a time we wrote back and forth, discussing her work, and then she moved on as fifty graders inevitably do.
Over the years I have had a similar correspondence with quite a few young writers, all of them bright, enthusiastic, passionate. I’ve accompanied each of them for a short distance, and then they’ve moved on. So the truth was, even with this new information, my memory of Abby was vague at best. Still, I was delighted to find out that she was writing to say that her first novel, Sticks and Stones, had been accepted for publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Sticks and Stones received a starred review from Kirkus, and now it was one of the four finalists in the middle-grade category for a Minnesota Book Award.
I sat down at the autograph table next to the still very young Abby—she was nearly vibrating in her chair in her excitement—and said quietly, just to myself, “You realize, we’re grooming our own replacements.”
But being there with Abby made the evening for me. I’ve had enough books published, enough awards, enough opportunities to sit in a large, noisy room autographing. But I’ll never have enough of watching young people rise up behind me … even when their rise suggests it’s time for me to move on.
So congratulations, Abby Cooper. I wish you well. May you replace me with vigor and joy. And may you take this good work we love and make it new for a world that is now yours!