Monday, May 24, 2010

in praise of children's librarians

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell (Dear America)One of the best family vacations we had was a solid month at the Jersey shore, when the boys were 8 and 10. Our cottage was walking distance to the boardwalk and the beach, and a block from the Ocean City Free Public Library.

First thing after unpacking, we walked along the railroad tracks to town and got our library cards. One rainy afternoon I was checking out another armload of books and chatting with the children's librarian as she date-stamped our Berenstain Bears' and I-Can-Reads. Suddenly a shrill fire alarm made me jump. 

"Don't worry," she said. "It's just kids."

"Typical," I said, proud that my sons were in a corner reading. "Some parents are so irresponsible." 

The words hadn't left my mouth before two young boys flew out of a conference room at full speed. My boys. They squeezed in beside me, covering their ears from the noise. "Mom, we opened a door to go outside, and something happened. Are we in trouble?" 

Soon enough a janitor reset the alarm and all was quiet. I was mortified. My apologies to the librarian were profuse. 

Without missing a beat with her date stamp she said "My dear, what would the world be without the curiosity of little boys?" 

I stopped holding my breath. With her few words, she had told me she understood. 

The next day the sun was out so we headed to the beach with a picnic. While my husband and I spread our towels in the sand, the boys raced each other to the waves, peeling off their t-shirts as they ran. In a wild shout of abandon they threw them like frisbees to watch them land on the water. But within moments the waves had swallowed those shirts and that was the last we saw of them. 

"WHAT were you guys THINKING?" I yelled.  

"We wanted to see what would happen, Mom. We're really sorry." 

So when writing Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, I couldn't resist letting Benny throw his shirt in the Platte River. Readers often ask why Hattie's little brother did that because, of course, he never saw it again. I answer, "Benny just wanted to see what would happen."

What would the world be without the curiosity of little boys and patient librarians?

Monday, May 10, 2010

a sick puppy helps with a pirate story

It was raining when the boys told us our new puppy wouldn't eat his dinner or drink any water. We found him curled in the back of his dog house, eyes closed, shivering. Russell was a golden retriever. He was our family's first pet and just three months old, but already he had won our hearts.

I rushed him to the vet. A blood test revealed he had a virus of the digestive system, Parvo, often fatal to young puppies. When told that Russell might not survive the night, I held my breath until I ran out to the car then burst into tears.

Glad that the boys were at home with their dad, I lay my head on the steering wheel and cried. "I hate Parvo," I said. "Parvo is terrible." Hmm. I sat up. The word had a certain ring to it. Said it aloud several times. It could be a name for a bad guy, say, a terrible no good mean ugly pirate.

The Stowaway: A Tale Of California PiratesI drove home in the rain, worried for Russell but now eager to reach my desk. At the time I was writing a novel for Scholastic: The Stowaway: A Tale of California Pirates. It was based on the true story of the French privateer Hyppolyte de Bouchard, who raided the California coast in 1818. He was the cruel captain of the 42-gun frigate, Argentina. I'd been trying to come up with a name for one of his swarthy crew members. Nothing seemed to fit until that trip to the vet.

So in the story Parvo met an untimely end, but back in the real world our sick puppy survived. Russell was to be our family's gallant companion for 13 1/2 years; there's even a photo of the two of us on The Stowaway's original cover from 1995. What a good friend he was.

PHOTOS: [left] Russell, age 13, inspecting our tomato garden; [above] cover of The Stowaway: A Tale of California Pirates, edited by my favorite pirate editor Regina Griffin.