The business of story is waking up.
– Martin Shaw
The business of story is waking up.
– Martin Shaw
The Christmas my son, Peter, my first child, turned three was, of course, the first time he was old enough to make sense out of the Santa story. And being the child he was, Peter made too much sense out of it.
“Mommy,” he said to me when I came into his bedroom on Christmas morning, “did Santa Claus really tiptoe into my room and put those things in my stocking”—having no fireplace in our Texas home, I had hung his stocking on the end of his bed—“or did you do it?”
I seem to be incapable—unfortunately, in this case—of telling a direct lie, especially to a child. And so I admitted that I had done it, and then I spun a story about Santa Claus as the spirit of giving, etc., etc., none of which interested him in the least. He had the information he’d asked for. Mommy had filled his stocking.
So when his younger sister, Beth-Alison, grew old enough to comprehend the Santa story, she had her big brother close at hand, delighted to let her know that it was all a big game the grown-ups were playing. There was no Santa.
She once told me that was the worst thing I ever did as a parent, depriving her of the brief chance other children have to believe in Santa. I defended myself by saying, “If that’s truly the worst thing I ever did, you’re pretty damned lucky.”
I only wish it were.
But what is it about truth-telling and Santa? If Peter’s question had been less direct, I might have found a way to respond without spoiling the fun. Because the truth of Santa isn’t about who did the tiptoeing. It’s about what the gifts honor.
However close or far we are from the real Christmas story, what is meant to be honored in this season is the victory of love over death.
And that’s a truth we search for, every one of us of every faith or no faith at all, our entire lives.
The Peter who so determinedly and mischievously—he was good at both determination and mischief—spoiled his little sister’s Santa story, died almost eleven years ago. At age 42, he left little behind except his wife and three sons, living proof of his ability to love.
Peter died after a long illness that robbed him inexorably of body and mind, and dying, he went to such an unknowable place that none of us who loved him could follow. Yet if I was unable to truly accompany his death, that three-year-old Christmas morning still lives in me. “Mama, did Santa Claus really . . .”
And so much else lives in me, too. And in his father and his sister. And in my beloved daughter-in-law. And in those three adored grandsons.
Can love conquer death, even if you don’t believe in Santa . . . in more than Santa?
When Peter’s father is gone, when I am gone, too, so much of his Peterness will be gone with us.
And yet I believe in the imperfect love that brought my son into the world.
And I believe in the imperfect love that will live still in those he created, in those he touched.
“Mommy, did Santa really . . . ?”
If I could return to that surprise moment with the perspective of age, I would answer his question differently.
“Yes, my son! Yes! Love tiptoed into your room.”
Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.
The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book isn’t just that they are fun to write, which they are. They are sometimes enormously difficult, too, but still fun.
It isn’t that they are short, either, though short has its own blessings. And its own challenges. I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s apology for having written such a long letter. He didn’t have time, he explained to his correspondent, to write a short one.
The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book, though, is to win the privilege of riding piggy back on a talented artist.
The first time an actual copy of one of my picture books arrives at my door always feels like Christmas, even if I have seen the illustrations through every step of the process, which I sometimes do.
Here are my words! My words! And look. A person with talent beyond my richest imaginings has brought them to life on the page.
What a gift!
Winter Dance, my latest picture book, illustrated by Richard Jones, emerged into the world in October. It has garnered three starred reviews, from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. (A starred review singles out a book as one of the best of the season.) And it couldn’t be more clear that Richard’s illustrations are the primary reason for those stars.
I don’t say that out of false modesty. My words are charmingly simple and even lyrical. There is a touch of humor, too, something my work isn’t noted for. And the text conveys solid information about animal behavior in winter.
But it’s Richard’s winsome fox, his appealing landscapes, his entire winter world that captures anyone who picks up this book, including reviewers.
. . .it’s Jones’ soft-lined, textured illustrations that steal the show, as they cast beautiful forest scenes across the page, using a cool wintry palette against which the fox’s orangey-red fur pops. (Booklist)
Jones’ full-page illustrations, done in rich, muted earth tones, are stunningly designed and executed. (Kirkus)
Bauer’s verselike text pairs gracefully with smudgy and similarly understated scenes from British illustrator Jones: the text and artwork work in tandem to suggest the hushed onset of winter while carrying readers forward with the swiftness of a snow flurry. (Publisher’s Weekly)
This particular picture-book text required weeks—even months—of writing and rewriting. In fact, for reasons too complicated to explain here, I had to reconceive the whole thing after the editor had committed to my first version, a story about spring. The editor turned down my first two, three, four attempts to revise before she and I together came up with the idea of a fox and the first snowfall and before I finally found a way to make those elements work.
I haven’t asked Richard how long it took for him to create his appealing paintings, but I’ll guarantee that despite the length of my labor, he labored longer and harder.
The writer has to come up with the idea, and the idea is key, of course. But without the artist’s bringing another whole world of ideas to the page, the story would be only half born.
Thank you, Richard Jones, for your amazing work. And thank you to all of the illustrators who, over the years, have brought my picture book texts to life.
I love riding piggy back!
Language attempts, among other functions, to describe reality. But then, in a turnabout, it actively shapes and creates how reality is seen. Language limits the perception of reality.