Recently someone asked me, “Why is it that you have such detailed memories of your childhood?” She commented that she did not.
I reached for an answer and came up with pure air. Why do I remember? Why doesn’t everyone?
Years ago, I had a student whose work was technically competent but quite lacking in emotional resonance. One day during a manuscript consultation I said to her, “Tell me about your childhood.” Her face began to glow. “Oh,” she said. “I had the most wonderful childhood!”
And that was precisely what was wrong with her work.
It’s not that you have to have had a uniquely difficult childhood to be able to write for children. It is that nobody, nobody in the world has a wonderful childhood. Exactly as nobody has a wonderful adulthood. We all have days. Some days are wonderful, to be sure. Others are boring or challenging or downright painful. But anyone who thinks she had a whole “wonderful childhood” has forgotten what that time was like. And who can write successfully for children from such a place?
Ironically, though, I suspect that part of the reason I remember my childhood so vividly is because my mother was one of those “wonderful childhood” folks. She spoke often of her own childhood on a Midwestern farm and always with deep reverence, so deep a reverence that I learned reverence, too.
My mother had such a strong need to remember her own childhood as perfect that she tried to make mine that way, too. As a consequence she lied away every inconvenient truth. And two passions pulled me into the career of my adult life, a profound reverence for childhood and an equally powerful need to tell children the truth.
I remember clearly the first time I ever wrote from that childhood place. I was in college and, while I ordinarily occupied myself with more “productive” activities, things that might actually garner course credits, I sat down to my typewriter one quiet afternoon and tapped out a paragraph intended for no eyes but my own. In a few words I described standing barefoot on a sunny sidewalk in my backyard, then stepping off into the cool tickle of the grass. Only that. But that paragraph emerged onto the page with lights flashing. “Important! Important!” those lights said. “Pay attention! This matters!”
I did pay attention, because while the paragraph itself soon went the way of all scrap paper, the silken feel of the words, their heft and substance, stayed with me. My mother’s reverence for childhood made those words shine.
It was many years later before I sat down to write about childhood again, and this time, carrying my other flag, I wrote about sexual abuse. I had suffered such abuse as an adolescent at the hands of my family physician, but having distanced myself from that memory, I wrote instead out of a passionate defense of foster children, whom I had come to know too often suffered such abuse.
I wrote about sexual abuse so long before the “me-too” movement that no one quite knew what to do with the story that emerged. Nonetheless, James Cross Giblin, perhaps the bravest editor in the children’s book industry at the time, brought Foster Child into the world.
Clearly, my mother’s deeply held reverence for the days of her childhood impacted me profoundly. The ways she tried so hard to “protect” me did, too. Does my ability to remember rise out of a curious mixture of reverence and defiance?
Or maybe the answer is the same as the one I once received from my partner in response to a very different question. When I first met her I was astonished to learn that she comes from a family of four daughters, all of them lesbian. “How do you get statistics like that in one family?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied with a casual shrug. “I guess we’re just lucky.”
And that’s me. Lucky to have retained the textures of my childhood, the quiet, unpressured days; the grinding powerlessness; the longing for what I couldn’t even name; the humiliations; the soaring joys.
And lucky to have found good use for all I have carried with me from those days!